Long: Kyle Busch’s ride of a lifetime makes him forget past losses, if only briefly

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The 25-foot blue-and-white fishing boat is awarded annually to the race winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Every year since NASCAR debuted its playoff format in 2014, the Cup champion also has won the season finale to receive the $125,000 boat.

But with a boat comes the need to name it.

A couple of hours after becoming only the second active driver with more than one Cup championship, Kyle Busch was asked what he might call his new boat.

After pondering it briefly, he suggested “Should Have Been 18” — as in he should have also won the 2018 championship.

For a driver who thought he would have had three, four or five series titles by age 34, it is the defeats like he suffered in this race last year that sting the most.

Busch admitted earlier this week that even if he won Sunday night, he might not be able to enjoy it because his goals are so much higher.

“Trust me, there ain’t going to be anybody happier than me if we cross the finish line first on Sunday, for at least the first 10 minutes,” he said Thursday.

Busch was happy for longer than that but his celebration seemed muted. This polarizing driver who sang on his radio “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” in March at Auto Club Speedway when he won his 200th career NASCAR national series race, simply said “Awesome work. Awesome year. Thank you boys” after capturing his 56th career Cup race and second championship.

“The thing with Kyle,” wife Samantha said, “sometimes he’ll listen to motivational speakers and all that. They say, ‘This is your job and you’re here to win and you’re here to perform and you’re here to be the best, so like congrats when you do it, but know that there’s always another goal.’

“I think that is it with Kyle, “Awesome I did one, now I want two.’ It’s not that he’s not proud of it … he just knows that he always has to keep setting that bar higher to push him and his team. I don’t think (the celebration) was sedate. I think it was confidence. ‘We came here to do what we were supposed to do.’ ”

While he smiled after winning, there wasn’t the unbridled exuberance. Admittedly, Busch was crowded almost immediately after exiting his car on the frontstretch and didn’t get to do his customary bow to the crowd. He also didn’t get to throw son Brexton in the air, which was the first thing the 4-year-old asked him to do when he got to his dad, until about four hours after the race.

Busch had suggested that Brexton get into the bowl of the championship trophy but his son demurred, saying he was too big for that (A few hours later, Busch coaxed Brexton to sit in the bowl for photos). Had Busch won last year’s championship, he could have had matching photos.

Seeds of Sunday’s triumph go back to last year’s disappointment when Busch fought an ill-handling car and wasn’t a factor as Joey Logano passed Martin Truex Jr. late to win the championship.

“I felt like not necessarily the car we brought but some of the approach that we had coming into it wasn’t right for my team, wasn’t right for Kyle, and I wanted to remedy that situation in the best way possible, and that’s to get here, number one and number two, perform at a high level,” crew chief Adam Stevens said.

When Busch experienced a similar loose condition with his car in his opening laps of Saturday’s practice, he had a flashback to last year’s Miami race.

“Oh, hell, here we go,” Busch said he thought.

“And then we worked on it. Adam did some really good adjustments to it early on in practice to get us to the tight side where I was really, really good at being able to rip it off the wall and had good rear security. I was like, OK, now we’re tight but we found both sides of it, so at least we’re not stuck with what we had like we did last year.”

But even if he felt good going into the race, few outside his team did.

The driver considered one of the most naturally talented in the sport, was viewed by many as an underdog. After opening the season with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three wins, and later capturing the regular-season championship, he was inconsistent in the playoffs.

That he also hadn’t won in his last 21 races, while his teammates won nine of those events, gave many reason to question if Busch could challenge Kevin Harvick or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Truex for the crown.

Busch was good Sunday but the race fell his way as the title contenders faltered one by one.

“That whole race went according to plan for a change,” Stevens said.

Truex saw his title hopes fade when his team made an egregious error, mixing a left- and right-side tire team before putting them on the car. Truex had to return to pit road on Lap 122 of the 267-lap race to fix the problem.

“I’ve never had that happen,” he said after finishing as the championship runner-up for a second year in a row. “I don’t even know what to say.”

Truex fell a lap down, later got back on the lead lap and while he would lead for five laps, it was only during a green-flag pit cycle.

“Ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” he said.

Hamlin’s race soured after crew chief Chris Gabehart made an aggressive call for a piece tape the length of a forearm be put on the front grille to change the handling. What it did was prevent enough air from getting to the engine to cool it. The oil temperature pegged. So did the water temperature.

Hamlin feared the engine would blow. His team called him to pit road on Lap 221 while he ran third. Water and steam shot out of the hood like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Hamlin was never a factor after that, finishing 10th.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart.

Kevin Harvick’s team game planned for a late-race caution, something that has happened all but one previous year in the playoff format. This time, though, there was no caution over the last 101 laps. And Harvick had no shot, placing fourth.

That left Busch, who had been so frustrated with his winless drought that when reminded last weekend at ISM Raceway that the champion also won the season finale — and he hadn’t won in five months — he responded by saying: “Thanks for the reminder.”

While Busch downplayed the doubt of others  — “I try to tune a lot of things out,” he noted. — Samantha said such things fueled him.

“You know Kyle likes to prove people wrong,” she said.

He did Sunday. While he seemed subdued, Busch admits there was a moment he was emotional as he joined seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the only current drivers with more than one series crown.

“I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that and I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and was just like, ‘Come on, man, we’ve still got to finish this thing, don’t be such a sis.’ ” 

The best moment for Busch, though, came later. After his wife hugged him, his son hugged him and his brother Kurt hugged him, Busch got back into his car to drive it to Victory Lane with Brexton.

“Brexton actually came to me,” Busch said. “I don’t know if he got the idea from somebody else or if he just remembered it from Keelan (Harvick) doing it with Kevin, and said, ‘Dad, can I go for the ride with you?”

NASCAR approved the request.

“That was really, really special for Brexton, for me and Brexton to be able to take in that moment and go for a ride around the track,” Busch said. “At first he was sitting down on the floorboard, and I was like, You can’t see anything, man. I was like, ‘Stand up a little bit.’

“So he then was kneeling and holding on to the roll bar and stuff, and that was really, really cool. And I was smiling the whole damn time and looking over at him and making sure that he was having fun, enjoying that moment. We were waving at the camera that was in there and stuff. It was a lot of fun. I’m thankful for that.”

And in that moment, there was no thought of chasing five, six or seven championships, no thought about losing the title in 2018, no thought of anything else.

In that moment, it was just a father and a son going on a ride together.

It’s just that this trip ended in Victory Lane.

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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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.