For Denny Hamlin’s spotter, each race begins with a prayer for Hailey and Austin

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Each second ravaged his soul more than the last. Chris Lambert crumbled after his wife and infant son died in a crash. He turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. When their numbing effects eroded, loss and anguish tortured him again.

What was the point in living?

Several times he contemplated suicide. 

Amid the blur of death, emptiness and self-medication, Lambert woke one day in an unfamiliar house, unaware of how he got there and around people he didn’t know. His wallet and cell phone were gone.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Lambert said to himself that day. “Is this how they would want you to be living your life now?”

A moment in time

Chris Lambert spots for Denny Hamlin in the NASCAR Cup Series and Brandon Jones in the Xfinity Series. Lambert’s role is that of friend, coach, part-time psychologist, protector and purveyor of whatever information the driver desires.

Hamlin and Lambert have worked together since 2012 but neither has won a Cup championship. They’ll try again Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC), 20 years after the most devastating moment of Lambert’s life.

“As a parent, I just cannot imagine,” said Hamlin, father of two daughters, about Lambert’s loss. “It just puts into perspective, ‘You think you’ve got problems.’ Any small or big ask he has of me, I go above and beyond … for him.”

It was to be date night for Lambert and wife Hailey. Austin, 15 months old, stood at the door as Lambert backed out of the driveway on his way to play softball with a church team. Austin soon would head to a park with Hailey before she would drop him off at her mother’s home. Then Lambert and Hailey would have some time together.

But between the park and her mother’s house, Hailey’s car crossed the center line of a rural road and crashed head-on into another vehicle.

Four people died.

Lambert remembers little in the months after the Oct. 16, 1999 crash. A moment, though, is vivid among the fog. It took place at the funeral home when some of Hailey’s friends came through the receiving line to offer condolences.

One of them hugged Lambert.

Little did he know how that would change his life.

 

Hailey Lambert

Hailey was a cheerleader. Lambert played football.

He was quiet. Lambert followed the advice of his grandfather, who would say that because a person has two ears and one mouth they should listen twice as much as they talk.

Hailey was energetic and outgoing.

But it was more than opposites attract.

“There was just something about her that made everybody happier and in a better mood,” he said.

Although they had been flirting for several weeks, it was Hailey who asked Lambert out. Sitting outside the school gym with friends as they listened to music one night, Hailey asked Lambert: “So are you ever going to ask me out?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “we can definitely go out.”

The next night after a football game, they went to a Pizza Hut popular with students.

Their first true date came the following night with a dinner and a movie. She then took him to her farm where her family was rebuilding their home after a fire. Other relatives were at the family barn sharing an evening of kinship around a bonfire.

“We were up all night just talking and getting to know each other better,” Lambert said. “From that point on, we were pretty much inseparable.”

When Lambert proposed to Hailey, he did not do it in private. On Christmas morning at the home of Hailey’s grandparents, in front of her extended family, Lambert asked Hailey to marry him.

After she said yes, Lambert turned to Hailey’s grandfather, a retired pastor, and asked him to perform the service. He said yes.

“Their entire family was just like she was,” Lambert said. “They took me in like I was theirs from day one.”

 

Austin Riley Lambert

Austin, born July 6, 1998, was learning to talk. He would say ‘Momma’ and ‘Daddy.’ He also said ‘puffs’ for the cheese puffs that he devoured.

Another of his early words was ‘cow,’ which he learned from all the visits to the farm of Hailey’s parents. He also loved their horses but had yet to say that word.

Already Lambert could tell which parent Austin mirrored.

“His personality, he was going to be a lot like his mom,” Lambert said. “He was just an overall happy kid.”

Before Austin was six months old, Hailey’s father got his grandson a lifetime fishing license so they could spend future days together bonding in the tranquility of nature.

Sitting still, though, was not something Austin did much of at his age.

“We were on the go a lot just to get out of the house and try to burn some of that energy off of him,” Lambert said with a smile. “He was never still.”

 

A conversation

One night, as Hailey and Lambert talked, the discussion turned to the future.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said.

Soon Hailey was saying that if anything happened to her or they were no longer together, she would be fine with him dating any of three friends in particular.

When one is young and in love, such affirmations float away like a random leaf in fall. There’s too much living to do to ponder such a dark future for more than a moment.

One of the friends Hailey approved of Lambert seeing if something happened to her was Angela. Hailey and Angela graduated together from A.L. Brown High school in Kannapolis, North Carolina. When Angela returned home on weekends while attending Appalachian State University, they would go out while Lambert watched Austin at home.

For as implausible as Hailey’s scenario and suggestion seemed at the time, there was something else that made the idea of Lambert ever dating Angela unrealistic.

“She’ll be the first to tell you,” Lambert said of Angela, “that she didn’t like me.”

 

The “lowest of lows”

When Hailey didn’t arrive at her mother’s home that October day in 1999, family members worried. No one knew where Hailey and Austin were.

A friend told Lambert that they had been with Hailey and Austin hours earlier at a park. He went to retrace the route Hailey would have taken from there to her mother’s house. Hailey’s sister then called. She told him to go immediately to the hospital in Concord, North Carolina.

Hailey’s injuries were severe. Doctors could not save her.

They kept her alive long enough for Lambert and her family to say their goodbyes. She was 20.

Lambert then raced 26 miles to a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, to be with his son, unaware that Austin died from his injuries during the helicopter flight.

Instead of comforting his son, Lambert had to identify the body.

 

Learning to live

After awaking in the house where he knew no one and didn’t know how he got there, Lambert vowed to try “my best from that point on to start living the way that I knew I needed to live.”

He worked and also helped a friend race at area tracks. One night, the team returned to the shop after a race and had a party. Among those there was Hailey’s friend, Angela. She had returned home from college to take care of her mom and finish her education at a local school.

Angela and Lambert started talking about Hailey, high school and life.

“Four hours later we were still talking,” he said. “I think it was a therapy session for both of us.”

While Angela had seen the kindness Lambert displayed around Hailey and Austin, she also knew about the fights he used to get in with others. She didn’t like that.

“Most of the fights were me taking up for people that wouldn’t take up for themselves,” he said. “If I saw somebody picking on somebody, I would try to stand up for (them).”

As Angela and Lambert talked, barriers came down.

Just as they did that night at the funeral home.

It was Angela who hugged Lambert.

Eventually, they began dating. But about six months into their relationship, he broke it off.

“I told her I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. Nothing she had done. It was just 100 percent me. I pushed her away.”

Lambert also faced an inner quarrel. Could he get close to another woman? His mother died from bone cancer when he was 3 years old. An aunt who looked over him died when he was young. Then his wife died.

“It seemed like every woman I got close to was taken too early,” he said.

Angela kept in touch, making sure he was OK during their time apart. They got back together within six months and were married Aug. 2, 2003.

“Our relationship has been the strongest it’s been ever since then,” Lambert said. “To understand that I’m worthy of letting myself go for the love of a woman, I know it goes back to that hug.”

Family routine

Angela and Lambert have two children. Hunter is 15. Cameron is 13.

With his role solely as a spotter, Lambert doesn’t work at Joe Gibbs Racing’s shop. That’s allowed Lambert to spend as much time as possible with his family between races.

They will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday to see if Lambert and Hamlin can win the championship.

They also are a part of Lambert’s routine before every race.

Once the prayer and national anthem are complete in pre-race ceremonies — and before engines are fired — Lambert calls his family. They wish him good luck and tell him they love him.

After hanging up, Lambert steps away from the other spotters for a moment alone.

He prays for family members who have passed. He prays for the grandparents who raised him. He prays for the wife who loved him.

And he prays for the son who stands against the door the last time Lambert saw him alive, waving goodbye.

 

 and on Facebook

 

Xfinity drivers chase historic checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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Chase Briscoe said in February that there was no reason he couldn’t win a quarter of the Xfinity races this year.

Even as he focused on becoming the series’ dominant driver, he concentrated on another goal — winning the inaugural Xfinity race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC).

A win this weekend for the series points leader would compliment the four Xfinity victories he’s scored this year and the six he has in his career, which includes winning the inaugural Charlotte Roval Xfinity race in 2018. 

Briscoe has practiced weekly for the Indy road course race on the Ford simulator since February.

“Every Wednesday I’ve been running at least an hour and a half to two hours at Indy, just trying to get prepared for the racetrack,” the Indiana native said.

“I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of where to make speed. It’s hard to really say how much the simulator will correlate over to the real-life thing, but I feel like I have a really good general idea of what to do, and I’m not going to be lost for those first couple of laps.”

The only NASCAR driver who has tested the road course is Matt DiBenedetto. He drove a Team Penske Xfinity car in a January test, compiling data for all teams. DiBenedetto said he is looking forward to watching Saturday’s race.

“I’m super-jealous of those guys,” he said. “They’re going to have a blast. That course is awesome. It’s so much fun, has really good passing zones, so I’m going to be watching really closely.”

Briscoe’s challenge won’t be just with the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course that winds through Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield and includes the tracks famous frontstretch. Among his key foes are expected to be Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger.

Cindric and Allmendinger combined to win three of the four Xfinity road course races last year. Cindric won at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Allmendinger won at the Charlotte Roval.

Cindric said that there is extra meaning this weekend because of the uncertainty of the Xfinity schedule beyond this month. All four series road course events last year were held after July. NASCAR has not announced the Xfinity schedule for the rest of the season beyond July.

“It’s no (surprise) that the road courses are … a strong suit for our team, and we don’t know how many of those are left,” he said.

Cindric says that Saturday’s race on the Indy road course will be fun and notes the passing zones.

“I think it’s going to be the best layout as far as passing goes that NASCAR goes to,” he said. “You’ve got two really great passing zones at the end of the both straightaways, that’s something you can’t really say about the Roval and Watkins Glen, those races are better for other reasons.”

Allmendinger should be formidable foe for Cindric, Briscoe and others based on his road course experience. Ross Chastain said Allmendinger has been a key asset for Kaulig Racing as it prepared for this event.

“AJ Allmendinger has definitely led the charge for drivers to drive the simulator and he’s built out our setups and what we should feel on those rigs with Team Chevy and (Richard Childress Racing),” Chastain said.

Allmendinger is more motivated to win at Indy than just to win the inaugural Xfinity race on the road course.

“There are very places … when you go to a racetrack that has so much history behind it, whether it’s IndyCars or stock cars, whatever its may be, you say the word, Indy and people that aren’t in motorsports understand what the history is being that racetrack,” he said.

“I want to be a part of that history. It would be something special to kiss the bricks, even if we had to do it with masks on. I don’t care. I’ll kiss them with the mask on.”

But he’ll first have to get through the two-day weekend for the series. With running on the road course for the first time, teams will have two practices Friday. That will be key for drivers, including Jeremy Clements, who won at Road America in 2017.

“I don’t know anything about (the track),” Clements said. “We don’t have any simulators or any of that stuff. Kind of going in blind. So I’m going to be a little behind there.”

One thing he is certain of, though.

“I think it will be a survival type race,” he said.

Briscoe just hopes he’s first to drive past the checkered flag. He admits, should he do so, it will feel different because fans, including friends and family, will not be allowed at the track this weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hate, first off, that there’s not going to be fans at Indianapolis just because when I go there, there are so many people that come from my hometown (Mitchell, Indiana) and from my area that don’t get to see me race anywhere else. 

“Just feeling the support every time I go there is so special. Last year in driver’s intros when we were riding around in the trucks, I literally had tears in my eyes just the amount of people that were standing up and cheering for me. It wouldn’t suck to win Indy without fans, but it would be bittersweet because none of my family would be there, none of the fans that don’t get to watch me anywhere else (would be there). I’m not going to turn away a win at Indy just because there are no fans, but it is tough to go there and not have fans.”

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule for NASCAR

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This weekend will mark the first doubleheader for the NASCAR Cup Series and NTT IndyCar Series as they both compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making the Brickyard 400 weekend schedule a busy one (Sunday, 4 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app).

They’ll be joined by the Xfinity Series, which will hold its first race on the IMS road course Saturday (3 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app) after the IndyCar race. The series will get two practice sessions before Saturday’s race, the first practice sessions for any NASCAR series since the sport returned in May.

The weekend culminates Sunday with the Cup Series’ Brickyard 400.

All three races will air on NBC.

RELATED: Brickyard 400 entry lists

For Saturday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 90 degrees and a 24% chance of rain for the start of the Xfinity race.

For Sunday, the forecast is for partly cloudy skies, a high of 91 degrees and a 14% chance of rain for the start of the Cup race.

Here’s the full Brickyard 400 weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Brickyard 400 schedule: Thursday, July 2

4 – 4:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

4 – 8 p.m.- IndyCar haulers enter (screening and equipment upload)

Brickyard 400 schedule: Friday, July 3

6 a.m. – 9 p.m. – IndyCar garage open

7:30 – 9:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enters (screening in progress)

10 a.m. – IndyCar team manager/crew chief meeting

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. – Xfinity garage access screening in progress

11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. – First IndyCar practice (NBC Gold)

1:30 – 2:25 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

3 – 3:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

4:30 – 5:45 p.m. – IndyCar qualifying (NBCSN)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule: Saturday, July 4

6 a.m. – IndyCar garage opens

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Xfinity garage access screening in progress

9 – 9:30 a.m. – IndyCar warm-up and pit stop practice

10:30 a.m. – IndyCar driver, team manager and spotter meeting

11:30 a.m. – IndyCar engine prime and final adjustments

11:45 a.m – IndyCar drivers report to cars

Noon – IndyCar race; 80 laps/207.32 miles (NBC, IMS Radio Network)

2:30 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Xfinity Series; 62 laps/151.22 miles (NBC, Performance Radio Network/IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers leave

6 – 9 p.m. – Track conversion to oval layout

8 – 10 p.m. – Cup haulers enter

Brickyard 400 weekend schedule: Sunday, July 5

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

2 – 3 p.m. – Cup engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

3:50 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

4 p.m. – Brickyard 400; 160 laps/400 miles (NBC, PRN/IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

8:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers

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The memories range from sitting on the couch to a father/son trip and from hearing a grown man say “here kitty, kitty, kitty” to seeing that same man climb a fence.

Regardless the recollection, the memories all point to one location.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As the track prepares to host a historic doubleheader on its road course with the NTT IndyCar Series (noon ET Saturday on NBC) and the Xfinity Series (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC) and then host the Cup Series on the oval (4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), Cup drivers shared some of the special memories they have of the famed speedway.

One of the memories that stands out to Jimmie Johnson, a four-time Indy winner making his final Cup appearance at the track, is watching the 1982 Indianapolis 500. That race that saw A.J. Foyt exit early because of a mechanical issue and then take a hammer at his car to fix the issue. But it was more than that moment that remains with Johnson. 

“I was on the couch with my father and grandfather,” Johnson told NBC Sports of that day. “Their opinion of A.J. and how he handled the situation and took the bull by the horns. (It was) like a guy/man moment with my father and grandfather watching (Foyt) work on his car like he did. I have a lot of warmth inside of me when I think of that moment.”

For 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman, who grew up about 150 miles north of the speedway, his first memory of the track was when he was in grade school and his father took him to the Indianapolis 500. It was rare to have a free weekend even then because Newman often was racing quarter midgets. Only thing is, Newman didn’t see the race. The race was rained out. The experiences there would get better, especially in 2013 when he won from the pole. “That was an amazing weekend,” he said.

Tony Stewart climbed the fence after his 2005 Indy win. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Joey Logano, who seeks his first Brickyard 400 win after finishing second there last season, thinks back to the 2007 race. As Tony Stewart chased Kevin Harvick for the lead, Stewart keyed his radio and said “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.” It was a line Stewart used from time to time when he had a strong car and was closing on the leader. Most times Stewart celebrated a win after uttering that line on the radio during a race.

Stewart is at the center of the memories for William Byron, who won the 2017 Xfinity race at the Indy. Byron recalls the first time Stewart won the Brickyard 400 in 2005. Stewart celebrated by climbing the fence. “I thought he was going to fall,” Byron said. “The fans were going crazy. … It was such an awesome moment.”

For Kevin Harvick, who won the Brickyard 400 in 2003 and last year, many early memories center around Rick Mears, who also is from Bakersfield, California. Mears is one of three men to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. 

“As a kid it was always a dream to go to Indianapolis and race IndyCars,” Harvick told NBC Sports. “Going to Indianapolis and racing stock cars is still a huge thrill for me. To go there and race on the racetrack that was your childhood hero’s place to be successful and really make a name for himself, to go there and and do that for yourself is pretty special.

“Sometimes you just have to kind of pinch yourself and say, ‘Man am I really living all that out?’ Being able to win at Indy a couple of times now and to win last year, for the first time with the whole family there and to have that iconic picture of the trophy and my family … is something that you can’t replace.”

For others, the memories that stand out are when they got on track at Indy.

“You’ve got to pinch yourself every now and then the first couple of laps around Indy because you’re like this is pretty damn cool,” Corey LaJoie said.

Kurt Busch during the 2014 Indy 500. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch, who will make his 700th career Cup start Sunday at Indianapolis, competed in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and then the Coca-Cola 600 later that day.

His Indy experience was special but he admits that his laps around the speedway in an IndyCar during qualifying remain vivid.

“Going 230 miles an hour for four laps,” Busch told NBC Sports, “why I decided I was going to jump into an IndyCar I’ll never really quite understand other than I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to go fast.”

 

Brickyard 400 entry lists: Cup and Xfinity Series for the weekend

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This weekend will be a historic one for NASCAR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Cup Series will hold the Brickyard 400 on the July 4 weekend for the first time as part of a doubleheader with IndyCar. Be sure you know who’s running after reading the Brickyard 400 entry lists.

On Saturday, the Xfinity Series will hold its first race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which follows the IndyCar race.

All three races will be broadcast on NBC.

Here are the Brickyard 400 entry lists for the NASCAR races.

Cup – Brickyard 400 (start time 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the NBC Sports app)

Forty cars are entered.

Ross Chastain is entered in his third start in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet this season. His previous starts, in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, were in a car prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing.

J.J. Yeley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 27 Ford.

Josh Bilicki is entered in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 7 Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Pennzoil 150 (watch at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC and the NBC Sports app)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Mike Wallace is entered in JD Motorsports’ No. 0. Chevrolet. This is his first NASCAR start since the 2015 Daytona 500.

Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Jade Buford, a Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car driver, is entered in SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet for his first career NASCAR start.

Jeb Burton is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

Click here for the Brickyard 400 entry lists.