AVONDALE, Ariz. – If one of the best seasons of his Cup career ends without a trip to the championship round, Denny Hamlin says he’ll have peace and some good company.
“You adjust your expectations,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said Friday at ISM Raceway, two days ahead of the race that will determine if he will run for a title in the Nov. 17 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure. We, as Mark Martin would say, just didn’t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives than anybody in the series.
“It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not. I think you have to adjust to that. Because in a one-race, winner-take-all (format) or a three-race round – anything can happen, and it did for us.”
After crashing and finishing 28th at Texas Motor Speedway in the middle race of the Round of 8, Hamlin is 20 points behind Joey Logano for the fourth and final transfer spot to the championship round despite a career year.
The No. 11 Toyota driver has five victories (his most since 2012) and career bests in top fives (18) and average finish (9.7) in his first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.
During his 14 seasons in Cup, the championship structure has been altered by stages, playoff points and points resets, which apparently provides some solace.
“I believe Brad (Keselowski) was talking how he values wins over championships because winning the race never has changed based on the championship format that has been changed so many different times,” Hamlin said. “We’ve seen, ‘Well, if the format was this, I’d have three championships.’ We all play by the same rules, we know what they are, and we know what the format is, but it doesn’t always work out for you.”
With 36 career victories in Cup and playoff appearances in every season except 2013 (when he missed four races with broken back), Hamlin is regarded as the best active driver without a championship.
The same tag long was applied to Martin, who was elected to the Hall of Fame three years ago as a five-time runner-up in the points standings with 40 Cup wins.
Hamlin, who turns 39 on Nov. 18, said he’d be OK with being known as the Mark Martin of his generation.
“I think Mark Martin said it best, ‘You can still be respected and still have a really successful career without winning a championship,’” Hamlin said. “I read that he thinks about now that he’s 60 years old, he looks back and thinks would a championship make any difference in my life right now? He says, ‘No, it wouldn’t.’
“I’m at that point. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I know what I’m capable of, I think my competitors know what I’m capable of and I appreciate all the love the media has given me over the last two, three weeks. It’s been incredible. Probably not all of it deserved, but I also think we have to give some love to the other competitors as well. Everyone is looking at is the 11 gonna win? Well, I think equally (Ryan Blaney) and (Kyle Larson).
“They all have an equal chance we have to give them the due respect as well. I’ll do the best I can and see what the outlook can be.”
If he comes up short, Hamlin said it still has been a successful year on and off the track.
“I’ve grown this year, no doubt about it,” he said. “I’ve had major life changes this year. I’ve had to grow. I’ve had to change. It’s helped on-track things, to be honest.
“If the year is over after this weekend, I can’t wait to go back to the racetrack in 2020. It was so much fun racing this year and having a shot to win every single weekend. It was just a pleasure. Although I really want to win, it’s not as much for me as my team. They are so first class and have given me fast cars every week. That’s all I can ask for.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson among athletes raising COVID-19 funds
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Today I'm issuing a Stay at Home order, effective immediately.
Our message to Virginians is clear—stay home. These actions are necessary to protect public health and slow the spread of #COVID19.
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.
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.