Ryan: Importance of being Bubba takes on new meaning for NASCAR

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – By moving Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace proved again he can move the needle for NASCAR unlike any driver other than the superstar he intentionally wrecked at Watkins Glen International.

The most-read NASCAR story on NBCSports.com this past weekend (and by a wide margin) was Wallace’s colorfully vulgar way of calling out the 2015 Cup champion. Though tossing in a few choice expletives attracts Internet traffic, the roar that erupted from the Glen crowd as Busch looped down the frontstretch already had affirmed that Wallace has a knack for striking a chord as the center of attention.

He spun Busch without compunction and then brazenly (and succinctly) explained why.

In a Monster Energy Cup Series too often bleached of controversy, moxie and verve, Wallace stood out Sunday – and for a different reason than what usually has put him in the spotlight for much of his career.

Being the most successful black driver since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott remains culturally and historically significant. It’s still a potentially vital step in the NASCAR blueprint for building a desperately needed diversity in its audience and a larger footprint in mainstream media.

But the uniqueness of his race is becoming nearly incidental to what makes Wallace’s story appealing and compelling (which is how he understandably would prefer it anyway).

Whether it’s openly admitting to flipping off his rivals, criticizing Pocono Raceway or candidly discussing his battle with depression (particularly in this interview with Marty Snider), anything Wallace does these days seems to be a headline-grabber. He owned NASCAR Twitter for 24 hours simply by mulling a tattoo of Richard Petty’s autograph.

This often has seemed the Summer of Bubba, who has remained relevant despite lacking the results (a season best of 15th at Daytona last month) just by being himself.

Each weekly trip through the media bullpen at qualifying brings another memorable quote or quip. “We’re stirring up some stuff, huh?” Wallace said with an impish smile at Pocono a few weeks ago as he detailed his dream NASCAR schedule “that would piss off everybody.”

It’s been a buzz reminiscent of the chatter that surrounds Busch, who consistently is the No. 1 newsmaker in the Cup Series.

Chase Elliott might be the Most Popular Driver by vox populi, but his win at Watkins Glen largely was overshadowed by various confrontations. That seemed fine with the naturally reserved Elliott, who is inclined to let his driving do the talking the same way his Hall of Fame father once quietly did.

It’s fine for NASCAR, too – to a point. As Dale Earnhardt famously said, a true measure of transcendence isn’t whether fans are booing or cheering. It’s whether they simultaneously are doing both at full volume.

There is an unremitting need for charismatic pit disturbers, and since the retirement of Tony Stewart, Busch often has seemed the only lightning rod left in NASCAR.

Wallace, 25, is poised to become another, provided he can overcome two major hurdles.

The first obstacle is (and always has been) sponsorship. As he said during a March appearance on NASCAR America, Wallace has made it this far in racing without having a consistently dedicated backer, which is somewhat inexplicable given his intriguing backstory and infectious youth should be an easy sell for any company. Funding would go a long way toward a solution to the second problem: Landing a first-class ride.

Though his No. 43 Chevrolet at Richard Petty Motorsports comes with boundless historical prestige, no one would attempt to argue that it could be competitive with even the world’s most talented driver. As a single-car team, there’s little hope of that changing.

Of course, Wallace also would need to perform in a high-caliber car. But he has excelled in limited instances with top-notch opportunities.

Driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2013-14, Wallace scored five victories and 26 top 10s in 44 starts. He was less impressive during a two-season Xfinity stint with Roush Fenway Racing from 2015-16, but in fairness, he wasn’t far off his teammates’ results, either. It’s been harder to judge his progress at RPM (which struggled for money this year before an injection of cash two months ago), but there have been flashes.

The world has yet to know how Wallace would fare with a Cup powerhouse. It might never know.

But if he could battle stars such as Busch for positions on a regular basis with the same brashness that Wallace flaunts so effortlessly?

That truly would move the needle.


An unusually stern postrace chastising of Ryan Blaney appropriately punctuated what was perhaps the most emotional week of Jimmie Johnson’s Cup career.

Though the seven-time series champion deflected and demurred on questions about whether he ultimately made the call to install Cliff Daniels as his new crew chief (“it’s a collective decision, though I certainly had to approve and had a big role in it”), Johnson left no doubt he was extremely uncomfortable about the removal of Kevin Meendering, who had no prior knowledge of his exit from the No. 48 after 21 races as a Cup crew chief.

“He was surprised and caught off guard and, who I am as an individual, I hate those moments,” said Johnson, who hadn’t switched crew chiefs during a season in his previous 17 years in Cup. “I honestly and truly do feel for him. I know Hendrick has big plans for him. I still don’t want him to rule out ever being a crew chief. I know we’re looking at opportunities of how we can use him internally in our company. He’s such a sharp dude. I hope he stays with us. And I know that Rick is going to do everything he can to make sure Kevin’s taking care of very well.

“Emotionally it’s tough, no doubt about it. If you look at my personal life and just everything, I’ve had long-term relationships, so this isn’t something I’m comfortable with. In my heart, I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position.”

The next major decision could be even tougher for Johnson, who is tied with Ryan Newman in points on the playoff cutoff line with four races left.

Though his debut with Daniels went fairly well until the wreck, making the playoffs is still a serious question mark, as his future at Hendrick Motorsports beyond 2020.

“That’s when my contract will run out, and I’ve got to make a decision at that point if I want to continue on,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September. “If my fire goes out or I feel like I’m not competitive, I think any driver would say that it’s time to walk away. I certainly have less years ahead of me than I ever had in my career. That will play a role if I feel like I’m doing my job right behind the wheel.”

A mediocre season, a guilt-ridden personnel change and the lingering uncertainty about how both could influence the conclusion of his Hall of Fame run … it’s no wonder we got a rare public glimpse of Johnson’s fiery side Sunday.


Tyler Reddick will race primarily on Sundays in NASCAR next season. Team owner Richard Childress made that abundantly clear last week, along with his desire to retain Reddick.

The question is how Richard Childress Racing would put Reddick in a Cup car for 2020. Childress said keeping Reddick “boils down to dollars,” indicating there are options in Cup outside RCR for the defending Xfinity Series champion (who has been politely vague when asked about next year).

The two scenarios for RCR retaining Reddick seemingly would be replacing a current driver or adding a third car.

There seems no doubt about the long-term job security of 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson who is in his sixth season driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. Teammate Daniel Hemric has a Cup contract at RCR through 2020 but told NBCSports.com that “I’m not sure if you ever feel OK” when asked about his status for next season.

“I feel like our supporters and partners see the progress we’re making, and I think they’ve been fairly intrigued and happy with the results as of late,” said Hemric, who is ranked 25th in the standings with two top 10s (including a seventh last week at Pocono Raceway). “So I hopefully can answer that a little more surely here in the next month or so.”

Asked what he made of Childress’ comments on Reddick, Hemric cited his busy schedule and said, “I haven’t really had a lot of time to even let it cross my mind, which I think is a good thing.”

Dillon, who called Reddick “a heck of a wheelman,” said he’d support RCR adding a third car if sponsorship allowed it. “I think we’ve got the room to do it obviously in the shop,” Dillon said. “It would be good to have another teammate. The more cars the better to bounce ideas off others.”


Corey LaJoie appropriately made many headlines this past weekend for donating a month’s salary to put a charitable cause on his No. 32 Ford, but the Go Fas Racing driver already should have been getting notice as one of NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers. LaJoie’s underrated (and oft-jarring) candor has been getting a weekly workout on the “Sunday Money” podcast that he began co-hosting this year.

LaJoie revealed in last week’s episode that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. told him his split with Danica Patrick partly was because of charging crystals and a full moon. Other recent LaJoie opinions from “Sunday Money”:

–On why the victory at Texas by Greg Biffle after a three-year absence (“he has been doing nothing but buying everybody’s bar tab at Fox and Hound”) made some truck series regulars look bad.

–A dissection of Paul Menard (and the ribbing he got from other drivers for “wrecking little kids” after his dustup with Harrison Burton): “That guy is a billionaire with a ‘B.’ He doesn’t care. If you run into him, he will just straight up wreck your shit. He’s funny.”

–On the low-key nature of Chase Elliott: “That’s been a topic of conversation within the drivers lately. He is nowhere to be found. He doesn’t do any autograph sessions. He literally goes from his car to his hauler to his motorhome. I don’t know if he’s getting too big time or what’s he doing. … We need to get him out a little bit. Because I can promise you if he doesn’t, he’s not going to be the most popular driver for a long period of time.”

Though the absence of a high-profile sponsor helps allow him to be so unfiltered, LaJoie also has a plain-spoken personality well suited for the podcast format – and probably as a spokesman for some edgy brand. If he continues to show promise at Go Fas, his name should be in the mix for stronger rides.


A major reason there is a lack of momentum for a dirt race in the Cup series? A lack of veterans championing the idea. There’s been lukewarm support even from those whose careers largely have been defined by dirt racing.

So for those who believe a Cup race at Eldora Speedway or elsewhere would deliver some scheduling diversity, it’s been refreshing to hear up and comers such as Christopher Bell (who made a case last year) and Chase Briscoe stumping for more dirt races in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I think Cup needs to go there,” Briscoe said last Friday at Watkins Glen International, which he scrambled to reach after racing a truck Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “Cup drivers are considered the best in the world, and I want to see them challenged at every discipline. We run a road course, a short track, a mile and a half, a superspeedway. So why not run a dirt track? That’s how I feel about it.

“I hear a lot of fans or people say it might take away from the trucks’ luster, but at the same time, there’s over 90 races of national series, and if five of those are dirt, they’re still going to be important. It’s no different than going to the road courses. People get excited we go to three or four road courses a year. It’s no different going dirt racing three to four times a year.”


While expanding its horizons to other surfaces, NASCAR also should consider adding “The Boot” – the currently unused stretch of Watkins Glen between Turns 5 and 6.

The nearly 1-mile section, which would increase the track distance to 3.4 miles while adding a few turns, has been used in IMSA and IndyCar races, and it’s been discussed as an option for NASCAR. The Glen’s popular campgrounds already extend into the area ringed by The Boot, so why not add race cars for those campers?

Xfinity winner Austin Cindric said The Boot would offer some low-speed corners and passing opportunities, easing concerns that it might string out the field.

“I’d really love to see NASCAR run The Boot here in a couple of years,” Cindric said. “If there is any petition there, I’ll be happy to sign it. I feel like we’re kind of just short-cutting the course, short-cutting some good corners. It adds more challenge.

“There is some really good, fun racetrack sitting back there waiting to be played with. I think it would give the people that go and camp back there more excitement, so I think it would be a nice addition.”


The news that NASCAR will apply traction compound at Michigan International Speedway this weekend and possibly at ISM Raceway near Phoenix in November brings some decidedly mixed reactions.

There were indications a few weeks ago that PJ1 wouldn’t be used at Michigan, so the shift in direction again signifies that NASCAR is soliciting driver input and reacting accordingly after many expressed misgivings about how the June 17 race unfolded with little action.

And the usage of PJ1 at Michigan and Phoenix also would represent a significant policy change at tracks owned by ISC, which had yet to use the compound employed with some degrees of success at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

But even if it enhances the racing, the usage of traction compound always will be problematic because it inherently prompts the question of “Why is it necessary to ‘fix’ the racetrack?” Which leads down the rabbit hole to “If a track needs that type of Band-Aid, should it play host to a marquee NASCAR event?”

If the 2020 national series championships are contested at Phoenix with the help of PJ1, that’s bound to be a discussion topic — namely because traction compound never will be needed on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s natural multi-lane layout.

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

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The first race of the round that will determine the championship field of the 2019 Xfinity Series playoffs will take place today at Kansas Speedway.

The eight drivers who are vying for the Xfinity title are: Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.

Here’s the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: : Stephen Durrell, executive director of the Kansas Lottery, will give the command to start engines at 3:02 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:13 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 10 a.m. Qualifying is 12:05 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 1:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:30 p.m. The invocation will be given by Captain Bill Petree, Whiteman Air Force Base at 2:55 p.m. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:56 p.m. by Joshua Morgan.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin at 2:30 p.m. with Countdown to Green, with the race broadcast beginning at 3 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

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

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts mostly cloudy skies with a temperature of 60 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: John Hunter Nemechek led the final 30 laps to win here a year ago.

STARTING LINEUP: Check back after the conclusion of Xfinity qualifying at 1 p.m. ET.

Saturday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The playoff race weekend continues at Kansas Speedway today.

Cup teams will qualify for Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) today while the Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8.

wunderground.com forecasts partly sunny skies, a temperature of 64 degrees and a 20% chance of rain at the start time of the Xfinity Series race.

Here’s the day’s schedule with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern.

Saturday, Oct. 19

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage open

10 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

12:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; single car/one lap (NBC Sports App)

1:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; single car/one lap (NBCSN, Motor Racing Netowrk, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

3 p.m. – Kansas Lottery 300; 200 laps/300 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Long: Even through pain, a smile emerges from Kaulig Racing’s Chris Rice

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chris Rice punctuates tweets with #Happy and whatever day of the week it is. Co-workers hold him accountable if he doesn’t smile because he’s always encouraging people to smile. His goal is to make everyone feel good.

Even when he hurts.

The last few months have tested Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

Nick Harrison, crew chief for Justin Haley’s team, died July 21. The team’s hauler crashed Wednesday on the way to Kansas Speedway for Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET on NBC). A few hours later, Rice found out his family’s dog, Kiki, was missing.

“The racing is minimal to what I’ve been through this year,” he said.

Still, Rice had reason to smile this week. Both the driver and backup driver in the team’s hauler escaped serious injuries. And Kiki was found a day later about 4 miles away.

Rice says faith has helped him through such challenging times. His voice softens when he talks about how he found out Harrison had suddenly died. Rice got a call from Harrison’s phone at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a day after the New Hampshire Xfinity race.

‘When I picked up the phone and it was not Nick, it changed my life,” Rice said.

On the phone was one of Harrison’s friends. He told Rice that Harrison had been found dead.

Rice helped Kaulig Racing grieve for Harrison while continuing with the season and the demands a racing schedule presents. His message often was that each day will get better.

Then come days like Wednesday.

The team’s hauler driver had a medical issue and the truck ran through a guardrail, went down an embankment and crashed into a wooded area in Western North Carolina.

Rice went to the crash site. Seeing the overturned hauler and debris strewn, stunned Rice. The windshield was knocked out. Wheels turned backward. The hauler smashed.

“The shock of seeing how bad it was got to me more than anything else,” he said. “The joy is that (the drivers) lived through this.

“We can replace all that other stuff. The one thing we cannot replace is life.”

Later that day, Kiki, a 12-year-old lobsta obsta that Rice and his family rescued 11 years ago, went missing.

“When I was looking for my dog, we walked and we walked and we cried and we cried,” Rice said.

Any pet is special but few are a life saver. That’s Kiki.

Rice’s wife, Tammy, is allergic to shellfish. She had an allergic reaction one night about a year ago while asleep.

“(Kiki) woke my wife up,” Rice said. “Just kept beating on her, woke her up. If not, should have never woken up.”

Tammy posted on Facebook that they had lost the dog this week. The next day, they got a call that Kiki had been found.

Even then, Rice had his doubts. There had been some foxes and coyotes in their neighborhood at times.

When they arrived at the shelter, the dog was Kiki.

It was another reason for Rice to smile.

“I don’t know what day is coming next,” Rice said. “I take what we have today and try to make the best of it. When I wake up tomorrow, I’m glad I woke up and I am going to help the next person.”

 

Daniel Hemric fastest in final practice; Kevin Harvick second

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Daniel Hemric turned the fastest lap Friday in the final Cup practice at Kansas Speedway, turning a 177.830 mph lap in his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kevin Harvick was second followed by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (who paced the first practice) and Ryan Blaney.

Hemric has yet to announce a ride for 2020 after RCR announced last month that the rookie would be replaced by Tyler Reddick next season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10.

Here are the rankings speeds of the other playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin 12th; Alex Bowman 15th; Joey Logano 16th; Clint Bowyer 19th; Chase Elliott 20th; and William Byron 22nd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for speeds from the final practice at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.