Long: Let drivers be who they are, especially Bubba

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LAS VEGAS — Please don’t change Bubba.

And please nobody change him.

Bubba Wallace was a whirling dervish of personality, opinion and openness Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — as he has been throughout his career. And as the sport needs.

Drivers fuel NASCAR. It’s a point NASCAR President Steve Phelps stressed last year before the season finale in Miami, saying that “every driver is really important for us to help drive star power in our sport.”

Drivers are akin to the quarterback in the NFL and the superstar in the NBA. But unlike athletes in those sports, NASCAR drivers can struggle in how much personality they reveal.

That’s not a problem for Wallace. Although his team has funding, it doesn’t have a major corporate presence choking his personality.

For that, he was Friday’s headliner at the track even if his car was not in the top 25 in either practices in single-lap speed.

Bubba Wallace in the media center Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Among his pearls in a 20-minute session with reporters:

# He warned veteran drivers upset about being raced hard that “shit changes every day. Get accustomed to it.”

# He was realistic about his chances this weekend, noting that his team finished third at Indy with a new car. The car he’ll race this weekend was last run in March at Las Vegas. “Hopefully we can show up and run top 15.”

# He called the search for funding for his Richard Petty Motorsports team an “uphill climb. … It’s still been a gruesome battle on that side of things.”

While there are many personalities in NASCAR — recall Clint Bowyer going into the stands at Darlington to interview a fan sitting in the rain — some are reluctant to express themselves as freely because of past experiences, social media or sponsor considerations.

Wallace isn’t deterred by such things, discussing the depression he’s battled this year and blasting Kyle Busch with an expletive-filled tirade at Watkins Glen.

Look, this is someone who plays video games on Twitch for others to watch, is constructing a drum room and flew Fit for a King’s drummer in to help set the room up, and is active on social media.

Wallace’s comments Friday came a day after former champion Brad Keselowski acknowledged that expressing one’s opinion can be detrimental in auto racing.

That it is Keselowski, who offered outspoken opinions earlier in his career on everything from how the sport could be better to raising questions about concussion diagnosis, talking about the limits to a driver’s personality is disheartening.

“The penalties for having a big personality are real, and I want to win,” Keselowski said. “Winning comes before anything else. You can’t win when you don’t have sponsors.

“The last thing sponsors want is big personalities. That’s just a reality of it. Sponsors want safe personalities, they want personalities that sell a lot of whatever and that’s not necessarily a big personality. It’s the reality, whether you like it or not. It’s part of the business model.”

Kurt Busch, whose public flare-ups have cost him rides, said that “I know what Brad is talking about. I agree with Brad on his main point, winning is everything.”

The question is if Wallace can thrive with more sponsorship. Sponsor World Wide Technology, through a leadership donation in May from founder and chairman David Steward, provided additional funding and led to Victory Junction being on Wallace’s car for a select number of races, including this weekend at Las Vegas.

With the extra money, the team had a new car built for Indianapolis. Wallace took advantage of problems by others and moved into the top 10 and continued to climb. Once he was third, he held others off in the final laps to finish there.

After scoring his best finish of the season, Wallace yelled on his radio: “Yeah! That ain’t supposed to happen! That is not supposed to happen! We did it! Nice job!”

He called out haters on Twitter during his NBC Sports interview after the race.

“I’m just here taking it all in and enjoying it and making the most of it,” Wallace said in his interview after the Brickyard 400. “But again, that’s not supposed to happen. We’re not supposed to run with these big teams. What the hell? Somebody can drive.”

And will drive hard. He says he’s not afraid to race hard when needed.

Every generation changes the racing. Veteran drivers were upset with Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, with how hard they raced when they came in as rookies in 2002. Now, the same refrain is heard as a new generation makes its impact.

Asked if the etiquette on the track is changing, Kyle Busch noted how “those rules are changing.

“I think it’s just the nature of Mark Martin not being around and (Tony) Stewart and (Jeff) Gordon and Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and some of those guys that knew how to race, but also the aero-package and what these cars drive like nowadays.

“A lot of these  younger kids now come up running Late Models and K&N cars and beating the doors off of one another throughout their careers and here they are doing it at the Cup level. It’s just a different form of where these guys are being taught to race.”

Bubba Wallace’s car at Las Vegas. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The challenge is to be aggressive and successful. Wallace seeks success. It has only been fleeting in NASCAR’s premier series, although his two best finishes there — second in last year’s Daytona 500 and third at Indy last week — are at two of racing’s iconic tracks.

“I love how aggressive we race,” Wallace said. “That’s just what I was taught growing up; be as aggressive and clean as you can. There is a fine line, but if the opportunity presents itself for me to force the issue onto you, absolutely it’s going to happen.

“I fell victim to it at this race earlier this year. Ryan Preece and I were racing for I think the lucky dog or something. We came out on a little different pit strategy about two laps or so and we were racing hard against each other. In my Monday morning debrief, I texted him and said I was sorry and it was just hard racing. He was like, ‘Why are you apologizing for racing hard?’ I was like, ‘you are absolutely right.’”

Just as there was no need to apologize how he raced, there is no need for Bubba Wallace to apologize for who he is.

Let’s keep it that way.

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eNASCAR Pro Invitational Qualifier to be streamed online

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The qualifying race for Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway will be streamed on enascar.com/live, NASCAR announced.

The qualifier features Xfinity, Truck and regional series drivers looking to advance to the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race that will be at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App. At this time, four drivers from the qualifier will advance. That number could change depending on any late additions or drops to the race featuring Cup drivers.

MORE: Roush, Greg Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

MORE: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing 

MORE: eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series reminds Clint Bowyer of being a rookie

The qualifier is scheduled to take place at 11:02 a.m. ET and have 34 drivers battling for those four transfer spots.

The qualifier will be 30 laps at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. The race will have no cautions.

Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 10:55 a.m., lasting five minutes, followed by the race.

Last week, six drivers advanced from the qualifier to the main event. They were: Anthony Alfredo, Justin Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ty Majeski and Ryan Truex.

Drivers scheduled to compete in Sunday’s qualifier at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway are (with car number):

02 – Spencer Boyd

7 – Justin Allgaier

08 – Jeb Burton

15 – Brennan Poole

16 – Justin Haley

22 – Austin Cindric

23 – Sam Mayer

26 – Tyler Ankrum

27 – Ruben Garcia

29  – Kaz Grala

29a – Trevor Bayne

33 – Anthony Alfredo

35 – Todd Gilliland

36 – Jesse Iwuji

40 – Ryan Truex

45 – Ty Majeski

46 – Chandler Smith

50 – Jeffrey Earnhardt

52 – Stewart Friesen

53 – Joey Gase

54 – Kyle Weatherman

63 – Scott Stenzel

68 – Brandon Brown

74 – Sheldon Creed

78 – Ryan Ellis

80 – Joe Graf Jr.

81 – Christian Eckes

90 – Alex Labbe

93 – Myatt Snider

98 – Chase Briscoe

99 – Harrison Burton

TBD – Derek Kraus

TBD – Drew Dollar

TBD – JJ Yeley

March 28 in NASCAR history: Texas Terry Labonte gets a home win

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Terry Labonte’s last two Cup Series wins were anything but forgettable.

The last one, in 2003, came in the Southern 500. That was the same race he earned his first Cup win in way back in 1980.

But four years earlier, the two-time champion got a home win.

A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, the driver nicknamed “Texas Terry” claimed a victory in the 1999 race at Texas Motor Speedway. It was just the third Cup race held at the facility after it opened in 1997.

Labonte started fourth and would lead 124 of 334 laps around the 1.5-mile track, including the final 12 after he passed Dale Jarrett on the outside going into Turn 1 for the lead.

Jarrett wouldn’t get a chance to fight for the lead again. With four laps to go, Jimmy Spencer crashed on the frontstretch to bring out the caution. Labonte took the checkered and yellow flags together for his 21st Cup win.

“We picked places to go test this year and I said ‘I want to go here cause this is a race I want to win,” Labonte told CBS. “Besides Daytona, coming here to Texas is awesome.”

Making the day even better for the Labonte family was Terry’s younger brother, Bobby, placing third.

Also on this day:

1954: The premier series held two races on different sides of the country. Dick Rathmann won a 125-mile race at Oakland Speedway in California after starting last. In Georgia, Al Keller won his first career race at Savannah’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

1982: Sam Ard claimed his first career Xfinity Series win in a race at Martinsville Speedway. Ard would go on to win 22 Xfinity races and the championships in 1983 and 1984.

1992: Robert Pressley passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

1993: Dale Earnhardt came back from a lap down to win at Darlington Raceway. It was his first win since the Coca-Cola 600 10 months earlier. Alan Kulwicki finished sixth in what would be his last race before his death in a plane crash on April 1.

2004: Kurt Busch won at Bristol for his third consecutive victory on the half-mile track.

Roush, Biffle reunite for eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race

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After four years, Roush Fenway Racing and Greg Biffle are getting the band back together … digitally.

Roush Fenway Racing announced its former driver will compete in Sunday’s eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series event on a digital Texas Motor Speedway.

Like he did in the Cup Series from 2003-2016, Biffle will pilot a No. 16 Ford in the race (1 p.m. ET on Fox and FS1).

“How exciting is it to get back behind the wheel of the No. 16,” Biffle said in a press release. “I watched the iRace last week on TV and I was really impressed with the overall quality of the broadcast and the racing. It was just a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to being a part of the show this weekend.

“We are running a really cool Castrol scheme on the car. I think it’s going to show up really well. My plan is to log a ton of practice time leading up to the race, so hopefully we can have a strong showing and you’ll see a lot of the Castrol green and red on the broadcast.”

This will be Biffle’s iRacing event debut.

After parting ways with Roush Fenway Racing after the 2016 season, Biffle returned to NASCAR last year for a one-off Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway with Kyle Busch Motorsports, which he won.

NASCAR teams impacted by North Carolina stay at home order

Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP
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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a stay at home order for the entire state of North Carolina, beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order is for 30 days.

The move impacts all NASCAR teams based in North Carolina.

“These are tough directives, but I need you to take them seriously,” Gov. Cooper said in afternoon news briefing.

MORE: N.C. Governor enlists Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson for COVID-19 PSA

MORE: North Carolina stay at home order

The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet away from each other. The order requires all residents to stay at home except for essential activities. The order states: “non-essential business and operations must cease.”

The order also states that among the definitions for an essential business and operation is “Businesses that meet Social Distancing Requirements. Businesses, not-for-profit organizations or educational institutions that conduct operations while maintaining Social Distancing Requirements:

a. Between and among its employees; and

b. Between and among employees and customers except at the point of sale or purchase.”

Mecklenburg County and Cabarrus County, which are home to such race teams as Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, were already under a stay at home order through April 16.

By the end of the week, more than 20 states will have issued stay at home orders, including California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Ohio.