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.

 

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.