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

 

Richard Childress Racing names crew chief for No. 21 Xfinity car

Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that Andy Street has been promoted to crew chief for the No. 21 Xfinity car that will feature drivers Myatt Snider, Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala this season.

Street has been with RCR for 16 years. He joined the team as a design and test engineer. He served as an engineer in Cup, scoring 10 wins with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Most recently, Street’s role was as an engineer in the Xfinity Series. His duties included R&D work as a design engineer specializing on chassis and suspension systems.

“Andy is a brilliant design engineer, who has spent a lot of time and effort at RCR over the past 16 years,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition, in a statement from the team. “When Andy stepped into the Xfinity Series crew chief role in Richmond Raceway last fall, I was very impressed with how he went about the weekend running and leading the race team. He proved he is worthy of this role. He’ll be the perfect complement to both Justin Alexander and Randall Burnett because of his engineering background and having worked with both of these guys on the R&D side of the company.”

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

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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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