Photo: Dustin Long

Pit road’s friendliest team has drivers smiling, laughing

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In the final moments before they begin their 400- or 500-mile journey, Cup drivers ease their cars down pit road, passing their pit box and crew, sharing a wave, thumbs up or fist bump as they drive by.

Their team, though, isn’t the only one to wish them well.

The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew for Bubba Wallace waves at every vehicle — including pace cars and safety trucks — that passes their pit stall before the race begins. They’re the only crew to do so, sharing a bond with drivers before the green flag waves.

“I appreciate it,” said Ty Dillon, who waves back. “I think it’s cool. I look forward to seeing those guys on pit road. Just makes you smile.”

Landon Cassill is another who waves back to the No. 43 pit crew.

“It’s nice to have a smiling face and a wave,” he said.

Former champion Martin Truex Jr. also makes sure to wave at the Petty pit crew members.

“If you don’t wave at them you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Truex said.

Tire carrier James Houk started waving to all the cars a few years ago when he noticed that not every pit crew stood in its stall and saluted its driver as they passed before the start of the race.

If I’m a driver and I’m driving past and I see all these crew members waving at their drivers and I’m just like I didn’t get a wave, I’m going to be sad about it going out on the race track,” Houk said. “That’s why I started waving at them.

“I was just like, ‘Man, they need somebody to at least tell them good luck.’ ”

The rest of the pit crew soon followed. While pit crew members have changed through the years, the tradition remains.

The first few times that you do it, you’re a little bit embarrassed,” said jackman Will Goodnow, who joined the crew after last year’s Coca-Cola 600. “At least I was. Now it’s fun.”

There’s nothing to be embarrassed about for any new members. They’re continuing a tradition that dates back to the team’s namesake. While Richard Petty didn’t wave to his competitors, he’s known as much for signing autographs and spending time with fans as he is for his 200 Cup wins and seven championships. It’s only fitting that this pit crew treats competitors as Petty treats fans.

“I absolutely notice it because I’m probably the only driver that drives down pit lane and has since I’ve started, give everybody a thumbs up,” seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “For the longest time the only people that waved back was the 43 (crew).”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said that when he sees the Petty pit crew waving: “I always laugh. It’s kind of cool.”

He also waves back.

But understand this isn’t a hi, how you doing gesture. Houk, the ringleader, sparks the enthusiasm with his exaggerated waves and gyrations. His teammates follow.

“We have fun,” fueler Ian Anderson said. “We love what we do.

Up and down pit road, we are part of a traveling circuit. We see the same faces, the same people every single week. So when it comes down to it, we’re all friends and family until that green flag drops. From flag to flag that’s when we compete.”

The same five pit crew members also service the No. 11 car for Kaulig Racing and Justin Haley in the Xfinity Series and wave to the cars before those races.

That’s where Cup rookie Matt Tifft first encountered the pit crew’s waving.

“I thought it was kind of weird,” Tifft said. “I thought it was a joke or something but they obviously always did it. I met some of those guys on the plane because sometimes we share their flight back and they’re all super cool guys.”

Bubba Wallace’s pit crew waves not only to him but to all the cars before a race. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

For as much fun as they have, there is some order to what they do. The five pit crew members line up the same each week. Houk is always first.

“James is the ringleader,” said Rear tire changer Justin Fiedler, who is next after Houk.

Front tire changer Brody Essick is third — he always has his helmet on because that’s part of his pre-race routine. Goodnow is fourth and Anderson is always fifth.

It’s Anderson’s job to count how many drivers wave back at the crew. The record is 28 set earlier this year.

Essick comes up with a number of drivers he thinks will wave and the rest of the crew decides if it will be higher or lower than that total.

For the Monster Energy Open, Essick projected 14 drivers would wave back. The field had 24 cars, two pace cars and two safety trucks. Fourteen drivers waved back to the team.

So, not every driver waves. Sometimes a driver might not do so because he’s fiddling with his radio or focused on his pit stall. For others, they’re just focused.

“I always think they’re being silly,” David Ragan said. “I always think they need to act more mature and get ready to make a pit stop.”

Ragan also recognizes how he prepares for a race is different from others.

“Everybody gets ready for a big event in different ways,” he said. “Some people listen to music. Some people act funny. Some people clam up, don’t say anything. Some drivers stand there and sign autographs, and some drivers stand near the back of the car and don’t say anything.

“For me, I try not to be too goofy before I get ready to go. That way, in case I make a mistake, it doesn’t seem like I didn’t have my focus.”

Reigning champion Joey Logano also isn’t big on waving back.

“Call me a jerk, but I’m not really wishing anyone luck at that point,” he said. “It’s all about going to win.”

One driver who has never waved back to the No. 43 pit crew is Denny Hamlin.

So what’s up with that?

“I’ve seen it, but I don’t wave back or anything,” Hamlin said.

Told that he’s the one driver the No. 43 pit crew hopes will wave back to them some day, Hamlin said: “Maybe I’ll give them a wave.”

The next chance should be this weekend at Pocono Raceway. The cars are lined on pit road before the start. The key for the No. 43 pit crew is to have a pit stall close to pit exit so they can wave to most, if not all of the field.

It was something I always looked forward to that brought down the tension and nerves before a race – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Pit stalls are chosen based on qualifying. Slower cars pick late and have fewer choices. That can mean the team has a pit stall that is behind all the cars that are parked on pit road and the crew doesn’t get to wave. Or, as happened in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, the field is parked on the front stretch and doesn’t come down pit road.

Essick said that “it’s kind of a bummer” when they don’t get to wave to the field.

At ISM Raceway this year, the team’s pit stall was behind where all the cars were parked, meaning the crew members would not get to wave to the cars as they went by.

No problem. They waved as the drivers walked by to their cars.

The pit crew understands what they do is not for everyone. Still, many wave. They appreciate Johnson’s thumbs up. They note Chase Elliott waves a couple of fingers at them — “Somebody’s waving at you, so wave back,” Elliott said. Houk said Dale Earnhardt Jr. would wave as enthusiastically at them as the crew waved to him.

“It’s in my personality to want to make friends or get along with everyone,” Earnhardt said. “I thought it was our thing. I don’t know those guys personally, but it was something I always looked forward to that brought down the tension and nerves before a race.

“I’m all for everyone getting along. I also appreciate boundaries and going to battle and knowing your enemy. But there is a place in the sport for brotherhood and fellowship. I felt like that’s what was happening in those moments.”

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Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, lineup and more

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The playoff field will be whittled to eight drivers today at Kansas Speedway, where the second-round cutoff race of the 2019 Cup playoffs will occur over 400 miles.

Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are locked into the third round, and Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick seem strong bets to advance. Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (plus 18 points in the final transfer spot) also have a cushion on the cutoff.

That puts Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer and William Byron in virtual must-win situations to advance to the third round.

Here is the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Actor Jensen Ackles will give the command to start engines at 2:37 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:48 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage will open at 10:30 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 1:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:30 p.m. by Lt. Col Randy Croft, Whiteman Air Force Base. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:31 p.m. by Eric Roosevelt.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

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

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. The postrace show will be on NBCSN at 6 p.m., followed by Victory Lap at 6:30 p.m.

Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 63 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: A year ago, Chase Elliott led the final 44 laps for his third and final victory of the season. Brad Keselowski won the May 11 race here, outdueling Alex Bowman in the closing laps. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

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Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

A Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman said Reddick and Custer talk led later in the garage as their cars went through postrace inspection.

There also were postrace tweets from Custer and from Reddick.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).