NASCAR reflects on its constant air travel in wake of Dale Jr. crash

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – As his plane began a descent into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, David Ragan buckled his seat belt.

For a NASCAR driver, that would seem to be second nature after making a living out of driving at 200 mph.

It was a point that reinforced by the terrifying plane crash Thursday involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family.

“Because you get in that habit where you sit down, and you don’t buckle up, you’re already pulling out your phone looking at it,” Ragan told NBCSports.com Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway. “It’s a shame that situations like that do have to happen in order to be reminded. We’re very grateful that Dale and his family were safe, but that will be a good reminder for all of us.”

The NASCAR community unfortunately needs few reminders about the realities of aviation tragedies. On April 1, 1993, defending Cup series champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. A few months later, Davey Allison was killed after suffering head injuries in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

On Oct. 23, 2004, 10 people were killed when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into a Virginia mountain en route to Martinsville Speedway (among the dead were team owner Rick Hendrick’s brother, son and nieces, as well as head engine builder Randy Dorton). Team owner and pilot Jack Roush also has survived two plane crashes, including a 2010 incident that robbed him of vision in his left eye.

With a 10-month, 36-race schedule, NASCAR drivers and teams are constantly in the skies traveling, and Thursday’s crash drove home that reality and the opportunity for reflection.

“As you put it all into perspective and you really realize the amount of time that you spend in an airplane and all the places that you go and things that you do and the amount of time that is required to travel, it’s definitely a reminder of things that can happen,” Kevin Harvick said. “But just thank God everybody is OK because you look at the pictures and all the things that went on, it’s amazing that everybody is OK and, in the end, that’s the best part of that scenario.  There’s really no good part of it other than everybody is OK.”

Ragan, who announced Wednesday that 2019 will be his final full-time season in the Cup Series, said “we take for granted how much of a risk we do take every week flying into small airports on small airplanes. We hop in late at night, and we leave. That is something that the sport is just accustomed to, and accidents do happen.

“Accidents happen on the roadways, in the garage area, on the racetrack and certainly on the transportation side, but (Thursday’s crash) just reminds me that you need to be grateful for every situation like that. That there are some serious situations that when accidents do happen, you need to be prepared.”

Kurt Busch said Earnhardt’s motorhome was parked next to his in the Bristol lot, and he watched Earnhardt leaving last night for home as he arrived.

“I was glad that he, his family and the pilots are OK; it’s a tough situation,” Busch said. “We all travel quite a bit and it was just tough to read about it. I’m sure the facts will start to unfold for us to figure out what happened, and I’m just glad he’s OK.

“We will miss him this weekend. I think it’s best for him to be at home. His motorhome was parked next to mine and they were leaving last night as we were pulling in. It’s just tough when you’re missing a good friend from the racetrack.”

Said Clint Bowyer: “It takes your breath away. Those are people that are our friends, family of NASCAR. When you see them in trouble like that, you see the video, that hits home, man. … That’s how we travel. (Earnhardt’s dog) Gus comes out of that thing. I can see Trip (Bowyer’s dog) in the same and my wife. I just couldn’t imagine. You really can’t put yourself in that situation. It was very, very scary for all of us to be bale to watch that and have to watch that.”

Martin Truex Jr., who was given the break by Earnhardt that led to his two Xfinity Series championships and is one the 15-time most popular driver’s closest friends on the circuits, said it was “surreal” to hear the news of the crash.

“I talked to Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) last night, yesterday on the way before coming here and just happy that everyone is OK,” he said. “It’s really a blessing. They’re like family to me. It was definitely scary. I can’t imagine the thoughts that went through their head and what they’re thinking right now, but just glad that everybody is OK. For us, airplane-wise, safety is always the No. 1 concern, and we don’t take any chances. I guess you just never know how things can play out.”

The plane crash has a little more meaning for Kyle Busch, who has the same plane as Earnhardt, a Citation Latitude, which is serviced by his Truck Series sponsors, Cessna and Textron Aviation

Busch learned about the crash from his own pilot.

“As soon as he said, ‘Junior’s plane went down’ my heart just dropped,” Busch said. “My first thing was, ‘Well, are there any survivors?’ Because you don’t know any of the details, originally, then a lot more of the details start coming out and you start hearing things. It’s a scary situation, you know?

“I know Junior’s had his pilots for a long, long time. I don’t know any of the details passed what you guys all know because I haven’t spoken to anybody. Everybody has procedures and protocol and things like that, and I feel like Cessna and Textron Aviation, those guys do an amazing job. They actually help me manage my aircraft. … It’s been a fantastic aircraft to get me from Point A to Point B, and it’s always been there for us and it’s done a phenomenal job. … My wife (Samantha) is in the air right now flying her way here on the plane and hopefully everything goes well and everything’s normal on that end.”

Goodyear tire info for Richmond race weekend

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If Goodyear tires at Richmond Raceway look familiar this weekend, there’s a good reason.

Teams competing in Friday’s Xfinity and Saturday’s Cup races will have the same Goodyear tire compounds as they raced upon in the spring at the 3/4-mile bullring in April.

Richmond is simply one of the more high-wear tracks on the NASCAR circuit,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said in a media release. “What we’ve seen this year with this higher downforce package, with the cars more ‘in the track’ and with less lateral slip, wear is down a bit compared to 2018.

Saying that, tires are still very important at Richmond. The tread compounds we bring do a good job rubbering in the track, creating multiple racing grooves throughout the race.”

As a result, tire management is a significant element for this weekend’s races, “meaning a good amount of passing throughout the field as a run progresses,” according to the Goodyear media release. “Richmond has traditionally lined up with a couple other tracks of similar length – New Hampshire and Phoenix – but its ‘racy’ configuration requires more stagger (difference in height between the shorter left-side tire and the taller right-side tire) be built into the tire set-up.”

NOTES: This is the only track at which Cup or Xfinity teams will run either of these two Goodyear tire codes. … As on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run liners in their tires at Richmond.

Here is the information for this weekend’s tires at Richmond:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Intermediate Radials

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (nine race sets plus one set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: Six sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4874; Right-side — D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,214 mm (87.17 in.); Right-side — 2,244 mm (88.35 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 12 psi; Left Rear – 12 psi; Right Front — 30 psi; Right Rear — 27 psi

Daniel Hemric not returning to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car next year

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Daniel Hemric will not return to drive Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020, the team announced Tuesday. The team said in a statement it had exercised its option and would release Hemric following this season.

Hemric is in his rookie Cup season and has been with RCR for three years. He competed for the team in the Xfinity Series from 2017-18 before moving to Cup. Hemric has competed in five full-time seasons across Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series and has yet to visit victory lane.

More: NASCAR schedule, video and more

Through 27 races this year, Hemric has two top-10 finishes – a fifth at Talladega and a seventh at Pocono in July – and an average finish of 22.7.

The move by RCR to release Hemric creates a potential open seat for RCR’s Xfinity series driver Tyler Reddick, who is the defending Xfinity champion. Owner Richard Childress said in July the only way he could keep Reddick was if he moved Reddick up to Cup.

Reddick has five wins this season, including last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Reddick enters the postseason as the regular-season champion. The postseason begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Statements from RCR and Hemric are below.

Joey Gase joins Garrett Smithley to defend self from Kyle Busch criticism

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Joey Gase on Tuesday joined Garrett Smithley to basically tell Kyle Busch to double-check his facts before pointing fingers.

Busch criticized Smithley and Gase for their driving – having made contact with Smithley and was impeded by Gase – late in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas, leaving Busch with an eventual 19th-place finish.

Busch said in an interview on NBCSN: “We’re the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic, they don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Gase stood up for himself in an extended tweet Tuesday.

Here’s a transcript of that post:

Well someone implied (Sunday) night that I have never won a late model race before. As you can see in the pics below I have won a few in my day and just wanted to share my story a little bit and thank the people who have helped me get to where I am today.

My dad raced before I did at the local short track level and that’s how I fell in love with racing. When I was 4 years old my dad got me my first yard kart and would turn hundreds of laps on the driveway everyday. When I turned 14 my dad retired from racing and I started to race his old open wheel modified and won that year up in Oktoberfest in Lacrosse, WI which anyone in the Midwest knows how big of a weekend that is.

When I was 16 I was the youngest ever to win the track championship in the Late Model division at Hawkeye Downs Speedway racing against some of the best in the Midwest like Johnny Spaw, Tim Plummer, Griffen McGrath, Doughly Fleck, Brad Osborn and the list goes on and this is when my career took off.

This was only made possible because a family friend believed in me and bought my first two late models and the motors to go with it. Our crew consisted of my dad, my uncle, grandpa, and I. My parents were not rich, my dad worked in a coal power plant for 20 plus years and my mom was a hair stylist. It took the effort of my whole family and a lot of people who believed in me to get to where I am today and I can’t thank them enough.

We have accomplished a lot of cool things over the years, my top memories being winning my first race back after my mom’s passing, finishing fifth with Jimmy Means Racing at Talladega after almost missing the race and making my first start in the Daytona 500 and being the highest finishing rookie (23rd).

I have to give HUGE thanks to Jimmy Means for giving me a big chance and making it possible for myself to get established in NASCAR with nearly no funding when we first started and Carl Long for picking me back up after my big sponsor from last year did not stand by their commitments and letting me know in the middle of December.

We have to work for every sponsor we get and I am proud to say I have 30 different sponsors this year and would not be here without them. Also have to thank all of my fans for always standing by me.”

Gase’s tweet follows Smithley’s rebuke of Busch late Monday afternoon, giving his side of the contact with the former Cup champ.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan discussed if Busch was wrong in his criticism.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Preliminary entry lists for Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend at Richmond Raceway for two of the national series.

The Cup Series holds the second race of its opening round while the Xfinity Series kicks off its postseason.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race.

Cup – Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Quin Houff is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in RWR’s No. 52 Ford and Spencer Boyd is in the team’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the spring race at Richmond over Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch won this race last year over Kevin Harvick and Truex.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Go Bowing 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the fourth time this season.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Hermie Sadler is entered in Ryan Sieg Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It will be his first Xfinity start since this race in 2016.

Joe Graf Jr. is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

There is no driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won at Richmond in the spring over Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier. Christopher Bell won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

Click here for the entry list.

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