It’s official: Christopher Bell to drive No. 95 Cup car in 2020

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Leavine Family Racing made the long-awaited news official Tuesday: Christopher Bell will move to Cup and drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota next season.

The 24-year-old Bell, who has moved through Toyota’s development ranks, will take over the car for Matt DiBenedetto in 2020. Bell’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, Jason Ratcliff, will join him in the move to the No. 95 team. Current crew chief, Mike Wheeler, will remain as the team’s competition director. Michael Leavine moves from that role to become vice president of racing operations. 

Leavine Family Racing also announced an enhanced technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development. TRD will continue to build the team’s engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance. Enhancements to the technical alliance between JGR and LFR, which began with the 2019 MENCS season, will continue to build into the 2020 season.

“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, LFR team founding owner, in a statement. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year. We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”

Said Bell in a statement: “Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing. To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.”

Bell will make his Cup debut in the 2020 Daytona 500, the team stated.

“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, in a statement. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota.

“We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins week in and week out.”

Bell is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is coming off a win in last week’s playoff opener at Richmond that sends him to the second round. The Richmond victory was Bell’s seventh of the season and his 15th in 68 Xfinity career races — a 22.1% winning percentage.

Bell seeks his first Xfinity title. He won the Truck Series championship in 2017.

“There’s been nobody that has won all three championships,” Bell said last weekend at Richmond when asked what is there for him in the final races of the year with his 2020 future in place. “That’s been one of my goals ever since I was kid, I wanted to set records, break records. I love getting track records whenever we qualify. To be able to be the first driver to have … championships (in each series), that would be a pretty cool record to have.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson among athletes raising COVID-19 funds

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Seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the athletes who have donated signed items as part of a fundraiser for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy states it is the only full-time national resource dedicated to helping donors maximize their impact by making more intentional disaster-related giving decisions.

Johnson is offering signed race worn shoes for COVID-19 relief. Anyone who donates at least $25 will be entered to win the shoes. A winner will be selected at random at end of the fundraising period, which is May 1.

Earnhardt is offering signed skeleton racing gloves for COVID-19 relief. Anyone who donates at least $25 will be entered to win the gloves. A winner will be selected at random at end of the fundraising period, which is May 1.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund supports preparedness, containment, response and recovery activities for those affected and for the responders.

Other athletes who have donated items include Jack Nicklaus, Stephen Curry, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles.

 

 

Where Are They Now: Lake Speed still racing and ‘still bad to the bone’

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He may not have been born a Petty or Earnhardt, but there is one former NASCAR driver whose surname practically predestined his career path.

That person with the colorful moniker is Lake Speed.

“God’s got a sense of humor, that’s the first thing,” Speed laughed when asked about his unique surname in a recent call with NBC Sports. “Every time I make a new acquaintance, I have to explain that the name is real and that God gave it to me.

Lake Speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997. Credit: Darrell Ingham /Allsport

“My dad was one of seven Speed boys. There’s a lot of Speeds back from where we’re from. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse. Sometimes you get ridiculed if you’re not running good because you’ve got the last name of Speed, but on the other side it’s looked at as unique, and I think it’s kind of helped make me stand out a little bit in a crowd.”

While the last of his 402 career NASCAR Cup starts came in 1998 at the age of 50, the 72-year-old Speed is still chasing checkered flags and living up to his last name.

When asked if he’ll ever retire, Speed chuckled, “I haven’t been able to find that in the Bible anywhere. I enjoy what I do, I like people and helping people, the interaction and all that is perfect for me. I just don’t see stopping.”

Speed began racing go-karts in his native Mississippi at the age of 12 before eventually finding his way into NASCAR Cup.

“Some people know I was a big-time go-karter for years, had a career, business and raced all over the world with karts before I ever came to NASCAR,” Speed told NBC Sports.

Since leaving NASCAR, Speed has come full circle, returning to his karting roots in 2001 and has become one of the more successful and prolific karting racers in the country.

Future NASCAR Cup driver Lake Speed poses with one of his racing karts when he was 15 years old. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“After I left NASCAR, a former NASCAR safety official, Steve Peterson, was a go-karter for years and years,” Speed said. “He kept calling me and kept saying, ‘Lake, you’ve got to come out here to the kart track. I have a few cars and you can come out and play with us some.’

“I finally went out one day and I forgot how much fun this was. I told myself I’ve got to get me one of these. So I got a kart and started fooling around with one and eventually started racing again. I went big-time, messed around and won the national championship in karting road-racing in 2007. Between the karting, the real estate business and trying to raise a bunch of kids and grandkids, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Speed’s day job is as a commercial real estate broker, a career path he began back in his college days.

But racing has always been his first true love, particularly karting. Speed won the International Karting Federation national championship six times before he came to NASCAR in 1980, and was the first American to win the World Karting Championship at LeMans, France in 1978, defeating a number of other aspiring racers including future three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna.

He remained the only American to win the world karting title in any class until 14-year-old Florida native Logan Sargeant did so in 2015.

Speed could have gone in any number of directions as a racer, but former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to try NASCAR, finishing as runner-up to Jody Ridley as Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980.

Speed would go on to record 16 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes in his Cup career, with a career-best points finish of 10th in 1985.

Lake Speed, winner of the 1988 TranSouth 500. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

March 27 marked the 32nd anniversary of Speed’s only win of his Cup career, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag by nearly 19 seconds over Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

“It was more of a relief than anything,” said of winning. “I had really been close to winning a lot of races in my career up to that point and particularly that season, we had led (nearly) every race that season before that race.

“We had the whole field a lap down at one time (in another race) and still didn’t win the darn thing. So when I finally won at Darlington, it was like, ‘Gosh darn, finally, now we can finally get on with it.’

“That was great, but there were other highlight moments. I had cars that were more than capable of winning a race and had a mechanical failure, an accident or whatever that knocked you out.

“There were also the times we passed the heroes and we were always an underfunded and under-budgeted team. When you outran the big dogs, it didn’t matter whether we won the race or not, we took home a moral victory. We had a lot of moral victories. Only one was in the record books, but there was a whole lot more of them where we went home to the shop with our heads held high, knowing we had put the hurtin’ on ‘em.”

Speed still keeps up with NASCAR – and the fans still keep up with him.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am, this far out, that I still get multiple cards, letters, model cars every week,” he said. “I’m autographing stuff and sending it out every week. It makes me feel good and gives me the opportunity to share my faith with people. I got saved in 1983 and it made a giant change in my life. I feel God gave me this platform to use, so I try to use it to honor him.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ Yeah, I miss it. I miss probably the most working in the shop with the guys, trying to build a better race car to outrun everyone else. I really love that challenge.

“I never went to work. It was always a pleasure and joy to work with guys and build strong relationships. People that have never been on a team that was working seven days a week for a goal, it’s just a different scenario than a ho-hum job that you’re going to just to make a check.

“I lived that life most of my life and when I got retired from NASCAR, all of a sudden I was in an office by myself. It was a shock. It took me several years to get over it. It was a tough, tough change. Karting really was a salvation for me, to get me going again to have something to do and the interaction with people.”

Lake Speed darts around a kart track April 5, 2006. Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR.

Speed didn’t mind being an underdog during much of his Cup career. But the real heroes to him were those who helped him throughout that nearly two full decades of NASCAR racing.

“I can’t really emphasize enough how important the crew guys are and were,” he said. “The relationships we built, we worked hours and hours together doing things and trying to accomplish stuff.

“In our case, being underfunded, when we got out ahead a lick, it was amazing to see these guys light up and the pride. When you see guys work real hard and they accomplish something together, it’s amazing. I still bump into one of those guys at least once a month and it’s like seeing a brother or sister that you haven’t seen in a while.”

Speed faced a number of tough competitors in his career but also became close friends with several, including Bobby Hillin Jr. and Darrell Waltrip.

Speed still lives and works out of the same compound he bought in 1985 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His real estate office occupies part of his original race shop, while his karts have replaced the Cup cars that used to be worked on there as well.

Karting has helped keep Speed young. He enjoys mixing it up with drivers half or even two-thirds his age.

“Look at it this way: I started all this when I was about 12 years old and raced until I retired from NASCAR,” Speed said. “I sat around for two or three years until I got into karting and went right back to racing regularly again.

“It’s just something that’s been in my blood all along. I love working on ‘em, love the people, the camaraderie and the challenge. I always said that if I knew last year what I knew this year, I would have won all the races last year.”

Speed is also a big part of what has become somewhat of a seniors tour: vintage karting, which is composed mainly of drivers in their 50s and on up into their 80s.

“It’s like going to a high school reunion, but where everybody shows up with a go-kart, races, has a good time, tells a lot of stories and relives their childhood,” he said with a laugh. “It really is cool, it’s the greatest thing in the world. You go to a high school reunion and it’s kind of boring. This is not.”

When asked how successful he is in karts today, Speed laughed: “With the modern stuff, not so much. You’re racing against a bunch of guys whose average age is 22, there I’m kinda mid-pack.

“But with the vintage stuff, I’m still bad to the bone.”

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Virginia stay-at-home order puts Martinsville race in question

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for residents of Virginia that begins Monday and extends through June 10 “unless amended or rescinded by further executive order.”

Such an order would impact the May 9 NASCAR Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. That race is scheduled to be the track’s first Cup night race.

The Virginia order prohibits “all public and private in-person gatherings of more than 10 individuals. … This includes parties, celebrations, religious and other social events, whether they occur indoor or outdoor.”

NASCAR issued a statement Monday:

“NASCAR is aware of the stay-at-home order issued for Virginia. We will continue discussions with public health officials and medical experts as we assess rescheduling options.”

NASCAR announced March 16 that it was postponing all events through May 3. Those races postponed are Bristol, Texas, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Previously, the Atlanta and Miami weekends had been postponed.

Previously, Gov. Northam had issued a stay-at-home order from March 24 – April 23.

North Carolina will be under a stay at home directive beginning at 5 p.m. ET Monday. It is scheduled to last 30 days. The order impacts the NASCAR industry with most race teams being based in the state.

 

Report: Debut of Next Gen car to be delayed

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The Next Gen’s car debut will be delayed, according to a report by The Athletic.

The car is scheduled to run its first race in the 2021 Daytona 500, but the The Athletic stated that the date would be pushed back in the 2021 season. The Athletic reported that a decision is expected to be announced this week.

NASCAR did not issue a statement Monday. Series officials are having discussions with teams and suppliers to determine the impact associated with postponements and adjustments of NASCAR’s goals for the new car.

The Next Gen car is viewed as a long-term cost-savings measure for teams and will include common parts from vendors. The Athletic reported that the delay in bulk manufacturing of the chassis and other parts will lead to the delay in the debut of the Next Gen car in 2021.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said last November that teams would take delivery of the car around this July. The COVID-19 pandemic has put that schedule in jeopardy. NASCAR has postponed Next Gen tests at Atlanta, Bristol and Dover. No makeup dates have been announced.

There remain two NASCAR Next Gen tests scheduled: June 2-3 at Charlotte and July 14-15 at Las Vegas. There are eight open tests and four organizational tests scheduled for between August and December. Phelps stated March 17 that NASCAR’s goal was to reschedule its postponed races before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway. Doing so could mean doubleheader weekends and/or midweek races, which would further tax teams as they also look to build Next Gen cars for next season.

“Even working ahead and being prepared, I see a lot of sleepless nights in the near future,” Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie at Go Fas Racing, told NBC Sports earlier this month.

Also, at 5 p.m. ET today, North Carolina’s 30-day stay-at-home order goes into effect and will impact many businesses, including NASCAR teams and vendors in the state.