Recent history kind to first-time winners in Brickyard 400

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Then there was one.

The Cup Series regular season comes to an end this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

The 160-lap race on the 2.5-mile track is the last opportunity for drivers to lock themselves into the 16-spot playoff field via a win or points.

Making the task even more daunting is that after Sunday’s Southern 500, there are only two spots left to fight over.

What are the chances a driver who hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet can earn their first win of the year at the Brickyard?

Based on recent history, they’re decent.

In 25 runnings of the Brickyard 400, only four times has a driver earned their first win of the year in the race.

However, three of those four occurrences have happened in the last eight years. In all four occasions though, the driver failed to win again that year.

It first happened 2003, when Kevin Harvick snapped a 37-race winless streak to earn his fourth career Cup victory. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2005 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The second occurrence was 2011. That year Paul Menard led 11 of the final 16 laps and beat Jeff Gordon to earn his first career Cup win. In the 293 races since, Menard is winless.

Ryan Newman followed in 2013, winning at his home track two weeks after it was revealed he wouldn’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing the following year. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2017 race at Phoenix.

The most recent example of a first-time winner at Indianapolis came in 2017 with Kasey Kahne.

The then-Hendrick Motorsports driver survived two overtime restarts to claim his only win at Indianapolis. It also marked his first win since Atlanta in 2014. Kahne would never visit victory lane again after being forced into an early retirement in 2018 due to health issues.

Which winless drivers still trying to clinch a playoff spot this year have the best shot at winning Sunday?

Drivers near the bubble

Clint Bowyer (15th, +8 points above cutline) – Bowyer enters the weekend with two straight top 10s. Led 37 laps at Indy last year – his career-best there – before finishing fifth. It was his first top five there since 2010.

Ryan Newman won at Indianapolis in 2013. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Daniel Suarez (16th, tied with Ryan Newman at 617 points) – No laps led in two Indy starts. Best finish was seventh in 2017.

Ryan Newman (17th) – Hasn’t led a lap at Indy since his 2013 win. Has one top five (third in 2017) and one top 10 (10th in 2018) since the victory.

Jimmie Johnson (18th, 18 points behind cutline) – With four Indy wins, Johnson has the historical advantage among the drivers fighting for the last two playoff spots. But since he finished second to Newman in 2013, Johnson has just one top five at the track (third in 2016). He was in contention late in 2017 before a wreck took him out.

Paul Menard (19th, 69 points behind cutline) – Lightning isn’t known for hitting the same spot twice, but Menard would probably like for an exception to be made. In his seven Indy starts since winning there, he has two top 10s, finishing 10th in 2016 and ninth last year in his first start there for Wood Brothers Racing.

Potential spoilers for the spoilers

Matt DiBenedetto – The Leavine Family Racing driver has shown his potential over the last two months on short tracks and road courses, which lend themselves to drawing the competition together. But with the best ride he’s had in his career and time running out to prove himself for future employers, there’s no telling what DiBenedetto can will himself to in the regular-season finale.

Chris Buescher – Buescher only has one top 10 in three Indy starts (ninth in 2017) but he’s on his own personal streak of consistency. He enters the weekend having not finished lower than 18th in the last 14 races. Weirder results have happened at Indy, just ask Menard.

Don’t need to win, but they could

There are four playoff drivers who have yet to win – Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ryan Blaney.

Larson is the only one of the four with a top-10 finish at Indy, having earned three in his first three starts. He enters this weekend with eight top 10s in the last 10 races, including five top fives.

Byron placed 19th in his lone Brickyard 400. However, he has three top 10s in four starts at Pocono Raceway, the speedway similar to Indy with its long straightaways and relatively flat turns. He finished fourth there in July for his only top five in the last seven races.

John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

NASCAR Twitter
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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.