‘If you need to throw down, throw down’: The 1979 Daytona 500 40 years later

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This weekend’s Daytona 500 means “one of the high points of NASCAR” for Richard Petty is getting its yearly workout on the highlight reels.

That is the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, a race that helped launch NASCAR into the mainstream and has been a defining moment over the last 40 years.

With much of the East Coast trapped indoors due to a snow storm, a large audience tuned in to the first live, flag-to-flag broadcast of the “Great American Race” on CBS.

“Wasn’t but three TV stations at that particular time,” Richard Petty said Friday at Daytona International Speedway. “If you was going to watch TV, then the racing was probably what people were watching.”

With Ken Squier calling the action, viewers saw race leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wreck on the backstretch, half a lap from the checkered flag.

Petty, who was running in third, assumed the lead and won his sixth Daytona 500. But as Petty drove to Victory Lane, Squier jumped in with an important news bulletin: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers are overflowing, they’re angry, they know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.”

The fight in the Turn 3 grass, which included Donnie Allison’s brother, Bobby Allison, may have been bitter at the time, but proved immensely positive for fueling NASCAR’s growth.

“You come down to the last lap, you see the rednecks come out in the racing part of it,” Petty said. “It was a perfect storm the way it wound up, with the weather, the way the race ended. … It couldn’t have been a better footstep for NASCAR at that particular time.”

Four decades later, few Cup stars were even alive for that race. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were 3, Jamie McMurray was 2, Ryan Newman was 14 months old and Kurt Busch was born six months earlier.

What do some drivers who were born after 1979 think of the moment they’ve only known through highlights?

Here’s a few thoughts from Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day.

Denny Hamlin (Born November 1980) – “I just see what every other person saw on TV. I’m always interested to hear how it all happened. When they cut away for a while talking to other drivers and commentating on things happening, they kind of caught it mid-fight. Who did the shoving first? I think it’s important because it really was the defining moment of when the biggest audience was watching NASCAR and so they latched onto that, and that was something people really loved.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (October 1987) – “It’s cool. If you need to throw down, throw down.”

Austin Dillon (April 1990) – “I’ve probably been seeing that clip for a long time since I’ve been watching a lot of Daytona 500s. I don’t know what my first clip would be, but I guess understanding it, understanding it and how important it was to our sport, I was probably 12, 13 when I really kind of got it, 14. …

“There’s a lot of things throughout history and sports that don’t pertain necessarily to the sport that were important to the sport. You know, it’s huge because it’s entertainment, and that’s what we’re trying to do is entertain fans, and the moment we get away from that, we lose our fans. We need to stay entertaining and that’s a part of it.”

Joey Logano (May 1990) – “That’s the biggest race of the year.  Whether it’s now or then, it was a big deal to win the Daytona 500 and it still will be, and it is. They play (the highlight) every year about five or six times, so I’m sure I was a little guy the first time I saw it.”

Kyle Larson (July 1992) – “I guess you see it in highlight films all the time. So I feel like that moment is something that helped grow NASCAR at the time. But yeah, when I drive through (the tunnel to the infield), I don’t think about the fight. But no, it was definitely a moment that will live on in NASCAR’s history.”

William Byron (November 1997) – “I’m so young, I wasn’t around for a lot of that. I guess, like, growing up watching honestly Jimmie (Johnson) and (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) win races at the 500, then watching Kevin Harvick win (in) 2007. Those are the races that stick in my mind.

“I’m trying to make memories of myself. It’s cool to see some of that stuff come around full circle.”

Some of the drivers were asked if it was possible for such a moment to happen again to the sport.

Hamlin said it “Definitely can.”

“Sometimes it happens in the motorhome lot, it’s not on the backstretch,” he said.

They also happen on pit road, as Larson pointed out.

Kyle Busch tried to punch Logano in the face a couple of years ago (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway), so yeah … it could happen.”

 

Ryan: NASCAR must take steps to make Phoenix title-worthy in 2020

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Let’s start with the positives for ISM Raceway: Outside of its racing, everything last weekend showed the 1-mile oval on the west side of Phoenix is championship ready.

Its fan enthusiasm – two consecutive sellouts in the Round of 8 finale and an enormous village of campers deserving of its own zip code in the Valley of the Sun – is firmly established as nonpareil in NASCAR’s premier series.

The community and local media support is deserving of the big-event status that often has been lacking during an 18-year run in South Florida for the season finale of the Cup Series.

And $178 million in renovations have delivered striking vantage points from gleaming new grandstands while offering an efficiently inviting infield with the 21st-century ambiance and amenities that too much of racing lacks.

This racetrack is ready to play host to the title-deciding race … provided that its 1-mile ribbon of asphalt can deliver the goods.

That, though, was the biggest question leaving Phoenix last weekend and facing all tracks of a mile and shorter next season when the low-horsepower, high-downforce package enters its second season.

“They’ve got to figure out something for this race because it’s going to be a letdown if it’s like that and it’s the championship race,” third-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “Hopefully, they can figure something out. I thought it was a start. They just need to keep doing their homework on it.”

Said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson: “As a fan, we need our short tracks to be better. To be what they were. They were the best races, honestly. Obviously with this package, they’re not well suited.”

There is no doubt the 2019 rules have been conducive to better racing (and particularly restarts) on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule (and once the bulk of the playoffs). They weren’t really needed for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which already had a reputation for outstanding racing because of its progressive banking and high tire wear.

Any championship venue should strive to meet the gold standard that has been set over the past 18 years in Miami.

But how can NASCAR take steps toward achieving that in 2020? There would seem few options for modifying ISM Raceway, whose footprint seems more than set after several years of capital improvements culminated in last year’s overhaul. NASCAR already has declared its horsepower and downforce specs largely will remain in place for next season.

And perhaps given the sudden groundswell for rotating the championship round, this largely will be a moot point if the title race’s stay is short-lived at ISM Raceway.

Here are a few suggestions for potentially enhancing Phoenix – and the 750 horsepower package on all smaller tracks — are percolating in the industry for next year, though:

Soften the tires: This seems the lowest-hanging fruit for improving the racing because of its simplicity. To avoid failures, Goodyear has erred on the side of producing bulletproof tires that ensure durability but undermine the disparity in speeds that is needed for optimal passing numbers.

That isn’t possible with tires that can run 3,000 laps without replacement (which was the estimate at Martinsville). Brad Keselowski noted the tires at Phoenix probably could have lasted 1,000 laps, which is why much of the 312 laps seemed like slot car racing. When there is no reward for tire management, it adversely impacts cars being able to move forward and backward.

“That really changes the dynamics because you get some guys that put a lot of camber in the car and take off on the short run and fall off on a long run,” Keselowski said. “You get some guys that drive really hard on soft tires and wear them out, and that creates comers and goers, but when you have such a hard tire, one that doesn’t fall off, you’re not going to see that.”

If degradation is factored in, the racing should improve but with some accompany headaches.

“A tire really soft with a lot of fall off makes for great racing,” Alex Bowman said. “At the same time, it makes for tire failures, and it’s hard for a tire manufacturer to be like, ‘Hey we’re going to bring this tire and if you run it too long, it’s going to fail, so don’t do that.’ It’s much easier for them to bring a hard tire with a ton of durability and very little falloff that doesn’t fail so they don’t get any flak for a tire failing. If you were a tire manufacturer, what would you do? Everyone’s kind of in a box. They want to bring the best product they can to the racetrack. To them, that’s one that doesn’t have failures.”

At some point, though, the PR concerns of a tire supplier must be outweighed by the negative ramifications on the quality of racing. What good is it to have flawless tires in races that no one wants to watch?

One potential compromise solution: Soften the tires with an emphasis on the left sides, which at least create fewer problems for teams (i.e. crashes, heavy impacts and body damage) when they fail.

Chop the spoiler: NASCAR officials have opened the door to reconsidering tweaking the cars to help racing on shorter tracks next year, and the most obvious play would be reducing the 8-inch spoiler that keep cars glued to the track and creates a larger aerodynamic wake that makes the handling of trailing cars less stable.

But while it theoretically should ameliorate the current downforce woes, the cause-effect is more complex than with simply softening the tire. Changing the height of the spoiler will affect the balance of the cars and perhaps be unworthy of the tradeoff.

Teams also are likely to spend more money on R&D if the spoiler heights aren’t static. This is a less important rationale given that cars are already much different from the 550 horsepower package (tracks 1.33 miles and longer) vs. the 750 hp (1.33 miles and shorter) because of the downforce and drag.

Work on the traction compound: ISM Raceway marked the first time that one of the tracks formerly owned by International Speedway Corp. attempted to apply PJ1 without consultation with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks (which had been using it the past three years). From the outset, the traction compound intended to add a lane seemed to have been applied too high on the track.

“I think it would have been a lot better race if they would have got it low enough,” Kevin Harvick said. “It was just way too high I thought. It was closer in one and two. I mean, it was still probably 3 or 4 feet. Probably needed to come down just a little bit in that end. The other end, it was 7 or 8 feet. It was way too high.”


Beyond simply improving the racing at shorter tracks in 2019, NASCAR already had its challenges at ISM Raceway. While the 1-mile track has become a darling of ISC because of its location and fan support, the competition in Cup (or lack thereof) has produced controversy before.

In the April 21, 2007 debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix, passing was so nonexistent, Denny Hamlin (who lost the lead on Lap 99 and never regained it) declared the new chassis was “mission failed” if the goal had been to improve the action. NASCAR’s decision to throw four debris cautions during that same race led Tony Stewart to accuse the sanctioning body of officiating tantamount to pro wrestling in one of the biggest controversies of the three-time series champion’s career.

In the March 3, 2013 race at Phoenix, Hamlin was fined $25,000 for merely suggesting the Gen 6 car was less conducive to passing.

So, this isn’t the first time the racing at Phoenix has been in the crosshairs.

“The racing specifically at Phoenix has looked like (Sunday) for 15 years,” Steve Letarte said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I know people don’t want to hear that. There were moments of great racing at times. There was not good racing at times. Fuel mileage races. Long green-flag runs. That’s Phoenix. I feel we all just have to appreciate what we get. Can it be made better? Yeah. It always could.”

But the stakes never will have been higher for NASCAR to have gotten it right by this time next year. The 2020 finale will be coming on the heels of at least five and quite probably six instances in which the reigning champion also will have won the race in a dramatic showdown with his rivals.


The two Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were locked into the championship round with more than a race remaining in the playoffs took the opportunity to have critical team members skip the race last weekend.

Christopher Bell’s team left car chief Chris Sherwood in North Carolina, while Martin Truex Jr.’s team sent car chief Blake Harris back Saturday after helping prepare the No. 19 Toyota. Truex still finished sixth at Phoenix with what he described to NBC Sports as “half a team and an old car” as the team elected to focus on preparing its Camry for Miami.

“Blake went home to get some work done, getting the Homestead car prepped and ready,” Truex said. “Blake was here for practice (Friday), got all his stuff done here, and we could substitute someone. We couldn’t really substitute anybody (Friday) for him. He’s a big part of our team.

“Obviously that’s why he’s going back to work on that car. Just make sure it’s all good. Checks and double checks.”

Bell demurred when asked about Sherwood’s absence, joking “I’ve been told he’s not feeling well this weekend. I’m just telling you what I’m told.”

There should be no apologizing for or hiding the strategy, though. It’s a smart play, especially considering that two of the past three Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano) won the title after winning Martinsville and ostensibly having extra time to prepare.


With Front Row Motorsports now facing two vacant rides next season after the announcement that Matt Tifft’s career is on hold indefinitely, the interim driver in the No. 36 Ford would be an obvious candidate.

John Hunter Nemechek, who finished on the lead lap in 21st during his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, said before Sunday’s race at Phoenix that he would be open to racing full time in Cup in 2020 but “there are a lot of unknowns right now.

“Anytime you’re in a race car, it’s an audition,” Nemecek said. “Everyone has their eyes on you. If you can do something, great. It’s only going to help you. If you do something bad, it’s only going to hurt you. I feel like (the debut) being a solid day, it may have turned some heads, it may have given Front Row some stuff. But overall, I don’t feel it’s an audition. I’m here to fill in for Matt and hope he gets a speedy recovery.”


John Hunter Nemechek’s progress underscores the importance of up and coming drivers selling themselves to teams with sponsors as a package deal. His main backer is Fire Alarm Services, which he eventually hopes to bring with him to Cup after having sponsorship in the Xfinity and truck series.

Corey LaJoie said recently that he has four to six sponsors in tow (much of it through business to business deals that guarantee product sales instead of traditional consumer sponsors that value exposure). LaJoie said packaging at least $1 million in sponsorship is the goal in shopping himself to more elite Cup teams.

In the Xfinity Series, Jesse Little’s move into a full-time ride at Johnny Davis Motorsports comes with a several sponsors that backed him in the truck series … and a few that he has yet to sign.

“It was a commitment on my part that I’m going to find this money that I told the team that I would bring,” he said. “I’ll get to work over the next month and a half, and once the season starts, it’ll be a constant journey of finding deals here and there. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’ll commit to right now,’ I made the decision to go out on a limb and say ‘I think I can get that (funding).’”

Little, who will be driving and hunting money full time while also completing an information technology degree at UNC Charlotte, said he consulted with LaJoie and Ross Chastain before making a leap similar to what they have done.

“They said it was well worth it,” Little said. “As long as you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes it’s what it takes.”

Truck practice report at Miami

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Championship contender Stewart Friesen posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final Gander Outdoors Truck Series practice session at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Friesen led the way with a lap of 165.320 mph. He was followed by Jesse Little (165.239 mph) and Christian Eckes (164.124).

Friesen was the only one of the four championship contenders in the top 10. Matt Crafton was 18th (160.901 mph), Brett Moffitt was 27th (159.250) and Ross Chastain was 28th (159.193).

Click here for practice results

Truck teams are limited to six sets of tires for today. The track wears tires, bringing speeds down. Teams save their tires for qualifying and the race.

Truck qualifying is scheduled for 4:35 p.m. ET today. The race is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET today.

FIRST PRACTICE

Grant Enfinger posted the fastest lap in the first of two practice sessions Friday for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Enfinger paced the field with a lap of 168.010 mph. Next was reigning series champ Brett Moffitt, one of the four championship contenders in tonight’s race, with a lap of 167.639 mph. Austin Hill was third with a lap of 167.162 mph.

Championship contender Ross Chastain ranked fourth (167.141 mph). Moffitt and Chastain were the only title contenders in the top 10. Matt Crafton, seeking his third series crown, was 11th on the speed chart at 165.042 mph. Title contender Stewart Friesen was 13th on the speed chart at 164.404 mph.

Click here for practice results

Truck teams will have another practice and then qualifying before tonight’s season-ending race.

Friday’s NASCAR schedule at Miami

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The final NASCAR championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway kicks off today with the first champion to be crowned in tonight’s season-ending Truck Series race.

The day gets going early with back-to-back Truck Series practices in the morning, followed by two Xfinity Series and two Cup practices, Truck qualifying and then the evening’s main event, the Ford EcoBoost 200.

Stewart Friesen, Ross Chastain, Matt Crafton and defending Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt will battle it out for the championship.

The wunderground.com site forecasts a temperature of 75 degrees, partly cloudy skies and a 14% chance of race for the start of the Truck Series race.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up:

(All times are Eastern)

7:30 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

9:05 – 9:55 a.m. – Truck Series practice (No TV)

10:35 – 11:25 a.m. – Final Truck practice (No TV)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

12:30 – 10 p.m. – Cup garage open

2:35 – 3:25 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

3:35 – 4:25 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

4:35 p.m. – Truck Series qualifying; single truck/one lap (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Truck Series driver-crew chief meeting

6:30 – 7:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (NBCSN, MRN)

7:30 p.m. – Truck Series driver introductions

8 p.m. – Ford EcoBoost 200; 134 laps/201 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Dover President honored as Comcast Community Champion of the Year

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Comcast has announced that Dover International Speedway President & CEO Mike Tatoian as the fifth annual Comcast Community Champion of the Year. Comcast established the prestigious award in 2015 to honor NASCAR industry members for their philanthropic efforts and with this year’s contributions, Comcast has donated more than a half million dollars ($600,000) to charitable organizations in the NASCAR community through the program.

Tatoian has been a staple of the Delaware and mid-Atlantic charitable communities, particularly with local military organizations at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, since he began his tenure at the “Monster Mile” in 2007. One of his longest commitments has been with United Service Organizations. Established during World War II, the USO supports U.S. service members wherever they are, including on-base, deployed abroad, passing through an airport or in local communities at more than 200 locations around the world.

“We’re all fortunate to be involved in this great sport and privileged to give back as well; the spirit we recognize throughout NASCAR is the same spirit behind our community impact programs at Comcast,”  said Matt Lederer, Comcast Vice President of Brand Partnerships. “It’s an honor to recognize Mike Tatoian as the 2019 Comcast Community Champion of the Year, he has leveraged his platform within the sport to bring awareness to his genuine passion of supporting the military community.”

MORE: A soldier he never knew inspired track president to do more

One particular duty that distinguishes USO Delaware is it’s the only USO in the world that shares the responsibility of bringing home fallen service members, working alongside other units such as the Air Force Mortuary Affairs, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, the Joint Personal Effects Depot and the Families of the Fallen. For 13 years, Tatoian has assisted USO Delaware with countless programs and currently serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Council for the organization.

Tatoian was chosen by a panel comprised of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, Joey Logano, who won the award in 2018. NASCAR on FOX Coordinating Director, Artie Kempner, and NASCAR driver, David Ragan, nominated as finalists for the award, were each awarded $30,000 toward the amazing work they do with Autism Delaware and Shriners Hospital for Children, respectively.

Kempner started Autism Delaware out of his living room in 1998 after his son, Ethan, had been diagnosed with autism a year earlier, and 20+ years later it’s a statewide service agency offering lifespan services, as well as social and recreational program for families in a safe and welcoming environment. Ragan has been dedicated to supporting Shriners Hospital for Children as a part of their ambassador program since 2012. Ragan spends much of his off-time visiting hospitals, fundraising, as well as inviting patients to the race track for once-in-a-lifetime experiences at NASCAR events.

Comcast has a long track record of community service, aiding in the advancement of local organizations, developing programs and partnerships, mobilizing resources to connect people and inspiring positive and substantive change. To learn more about the Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award, please visit ComcastCommunityChampion.com.