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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Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

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What’s next?

In a season of change that has zoomed through NASCAR like history did in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 100 days remain in the year. That’s plenty of time for more upheaval.

Remember the beginning of the season when talk centered on the championship race moving to Phoenix Raceway this year?

That was back when teams practiced and qualified before races, before drivers chose what lane to restart, before midweek races.

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR and all sports to change, but when NASCAR returned after a 10-week break in May to Darlington without spectators, that was only the beginning of a season unlike any other.

Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport Monday night capped a day that started with Chip Ganassi hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 42 car next year and a report that NASCAR would add another road course to the 2021 schedule and move the All-Star Race.

The 2021 schedule has not been released so that is something to look forward to at some point in the next 100 days. The timeline on when it will be revealed continues to change, so let’s just say it will be out by Christmas, if not sooner. Who knows, there still might be more road course races on next year’s schedule. 

This is what we know of 2021: It won’t feature the Next Gen car, which has been delayed to 2022; the Daytona 500 is scheduled to open the season on Valentine’s Day; and Nashville Superspeedway will host Cup cars for the first time in June, the first in a four-year agreement.

Oh, and we also know where Bubba Wallace will be racing in 2021. He’ll drive for a team co-owned by Jordan and Denny Hamlin. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty says of the three: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The sport’s quiet rock star, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, is watching his final full-time season — don’t worry he hints that he’ll look to run a few Cup races when his IndyCar schedule allows — end with muted fanfare in front of empty stands or socially distanced crowds.

Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce who it will add to its driver lineup with Johnson’s departure. That’s just among the unknowns with 100 days left in the year and 145 days until next year’s Daytona 500. Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth have yet to announce plans for next year. The status of Kyle Larson’s return looms over all of them.

One of the bigger questions on the track is if Kyle Busch can win a Cup race this season. He’s won at least one series race in each of the past 15 years, a streak that ranks tied for sixth on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of the streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. Hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here.”

Busch came close last weekend at Bristol, the first time that track hosted a playoff race. It was part of the revamped playoff schedule that has Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville as elimination races, NASCAR’s way of ramping the intensity as the season comes to a close.

There weren’t fireworks on the track but the 30,000 fans at Bristol saw a spellbinding battle between Harvick and Busch for the win over the final laps. Harvick prevailed for his ninth win of the season. Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 or more races.

Fans are slowly returning to the track, although there won’t be any at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway found out Tuesday that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will permit outdoor arenas with seating capacity of more than 10,000 to be filled to 7% capacity. Charlotte races in May were run without fans and the All-Star Race was moved to Bristol in July because Bristol could have fans and Charlotte could not.

Social initiatives, including the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and tracks, were added this summer.

“Ultimately,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in June, “when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or on to our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

That was among the key changes that Jordan said drew him to joining Hamlin as an owner of NASCAR’s newest Cup team.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Jordan’s entrance is significant. But the way this season has gone, a global sports icon joining NASCAR? That’s called Tuesday.

With 100 days left in the year, there’s plenty more change ahead.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” said Daugherty, a teammate to Jordan on the University of North Carolina basketball team. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”