Friday 5: Did driver quit NASCAR race to watch man walk on moon?

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As the celebration of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon 50 years ago takes place Saturday, the event puts a spotlight on NASCAR folklore.

And an independent driver named Henley Gray.

The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.

Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”

The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.

Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.

But there’s a problem.

“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”

Gray is 86 “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.

His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.

Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.

“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”

After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.

Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.

Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.

But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.

Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.

“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”

2. NASCAR is watching

Alex Bowman on the roof of his car after winning at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Twice in the last three weeks, victory celebrations featured drivers standing on the roof of their car. Alex Bowman did it after he scored his first Cup win three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Kurt Busch did it last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.  

Kurt Busch celebrates his Kentucky win atop his car’s roof. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.

Last week also saw five crew members ride on Kurt Busch’s winning car from the start/finish line after his celebration there. The moment was lauded on social media for how it resembled such celebrations decades ago. 

It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.

In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy. 

On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.

We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”

3. A new strategy

Since lightning stopped the Daytona race a couple of weeks ago and rain later finished it, some teams are taking a closer look at how they monitor weather.

Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.

While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.

Kurt Busch gave up the lead at Daytona under caution to pit when NASCAR announced that the restart would be on the next lap. Shortly after pitting, lightning struck 6.3 miles from the track and the race was stopped with Justin Haley in the lead. The race never resumed and Haley won.

“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”

Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”

Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.

4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity 

Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.

So, who can top them?

Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.

“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”

Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.

“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”

Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.

5. Sticky situation  

This marks the second of three consecutive weekends that a traction compound will be applied to a track surface. It was done last weekend at Kentucky, will be done this week at New Hampshire and also will be done at next week at Pocono.

Watkins Glen follows Pocono but the next oval after Pocono is Michigan. There are no plans at this time for Michigan to use the traction compound next month.

Watch NASCAR Cup Awards Show at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Get settled into your favorite easy chair, make sure you have plenty of snacks and beverages on hand and get ready for the last big event of 2019 on the NASCAR schedule: tonight’s NASCAR Awards Show.

The show will be broadcast on NBCSN from 8-10:30 p.m. ET from Nashville, Tennessee, for the first time. And if you miss some of the show, don’t worry, there’ll be a replay immediately afterward, also on NBCSN.

Kyle Busch will be the main attraction for tonight’s show, being celebrated for winning his second NASCAR Cup championship this past season.

Also, the 2019 NASCAR Cup Most Popular Driver award winner will be revealed. Will it be defending winner Chase Elliott, reigning champion Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto … or someone else? You definitely need to tune in to find out.

And to get you in the mood, we’ll replay Wednesday’s Burnouts on Broadway at 7 p.m. ET, also on NBCSN.

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Will Daniel Suarez race for Richard Childress Racing in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The president of Richard Childress Racing said it is a “longshot” that Daniel Suarez will drive a third Cup entry for the organization in 2020 but said RCR would like to have Suarez drive its No. 2 Xfinity car next year.

Suarez has not decided where he’ll race in 2020 after losing his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing this year.

Suarez has been linked with RCR. A third Cup entry would require RCR to acquire another charter for that car. It also could mean that the organization would need to hire additional people if they expanded to three full-time cars.

“I think that would be a long shot in a Cup program,” Torrey Galida told NBC Sports about Suarez in a third RCR Cup entry. “We’ve talked to him about an Xfinity program. We’d love to have him in an Xfinity car, and we think we could win another championship next year with Daniel. He’s a very talented young man.”

Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Xfinity car will run the full season with multiple drivers in 2020. Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo have been announced to drive that car. Galida said the team is looking at Kaz Grala, Austin Dillon and possibly two-time series champ Tyler Reddick driving that car in select races.

RCR ran the No. 21 car in nine of 33 Xfinity races this past season. It ran the No. 2 car in every race.

If Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion, drove for RCR in the Xfinity Series next year, it would be with the organization’s No. 2 car.

“We could still do that and we would do that,” Galida said of a full-time Xfinity effort for Suarez. “That’s the kind of opportunity we would be interested in.”

Galida said it just is a matter of hearing what Suarez decides.

“I think he knows what we’ve got to offer, and I think he’s just weighing his alternatives and trying to determine what is best for him,” Galida told NBC Sports. “I’m sure that going back to the Xfinity Series is not his first choice. I think in the right equipment it could be a really good move for him.”

Galida said they could go into January before hearing from Suarez but noted that “the sooner the better. People are your biggest issue. You want to put the right people around him.”

Next April’s Xfinity race at Bristol to have new sponsor

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Bristol Motor Speedway announced Thursday that partner Alsco, along with Darden Restaurants and its Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen brand, will sponsor next April’s Xfinity Series race there.

The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco will take place on Saturday, April 4, 2020.

Alsco is a global leader in uniform and linen rental services. In addition to its entitlement at Bristol Motor Speedway, Alsco will take part in Xfinity Series entitlements at three other Speedway Motorsports Inc. racetracks: Kentucky Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Alsco’s initial entitlement at BMS came this past April with the Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race, won by Christopher Bell, who earned a $100,000 bonus through Xfinity’s Dash 4 Cash program.

Alsco is also a sponsor for Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and JR Motorsports.

“Bristol is the place for historic finishes and close, hard-knock racing action,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Alsco and our new friends at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen understand the reputation of racing at The Last Great Colosseum and we’re ready to show them an incredible experience. The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco is a must-see event on the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule.”

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Cup champion’s celebration painful to those who didn’t win title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A year after being feted for his first NASCAR Cup title, Joey Logano returned to Champion’s Week with a different feeling.

“These banquets aren’t really the same after you’ve won it and you know what it’s like to see your car plastered everywhere and your team and everyone is having fun together,” Logano said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re in Nashville, there’s a lot of really cool things, but it really stinks for the competitor to come to the banquet because it’s just like another reminder that you got beat. That’s not much fun. I don’t really like that part.

“When you leave the banquet that night, you really wish you could race the next day because that’s about the most motivating thing you could do is go to a banquet that you didn’t win because all you want to do is change that. And you want to do it as quickly as possible but you’ve got to wait until Daytona to get going again.”

The sport celebrates Kyle Busch’s championship at 8 p.m. ET today on NBCSN. This marks the first year the NASCAR Awards Show has been in Nashville. Busch was a part of the WWE event in the city on Monday, was honored by the Nashville Predators before Tuesday’s NHL game and took part in the Burnouts on Broadway on Wednesday with many other playoff drivers.

While Busch basks in the celebration, teammate Martin Truex Jr. deals with the pain of finishing second in the championship for a second consecutive year. Logano passed Truex late to win last year’s championship. Truex’s title run this season was derailed, in part, by his crew putting the wrong tires on the wrong side of the car in last month’s championship race in Miami.

Had things gone a little differently, Truex could have won three consecutive championships, matching Cale Yarborough’s accomplishment from 1976-78.

“I’ll tell you when I get over it,” Truex said of the pain of finishing second again for the title. “It’s a  big deal. Work all year long to put yourself in that position. When it doesn’t turn out the way you hope, it’s tough.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into it. It’s not something that goes away. It takes time. Honestly, I’m still sour about finishing second last year, too. Two years in a row finishing second hurts. you have to learn from it and move on, but you never forget it.”