Photo by Daniel McFadin

Hailie Deegan looking forward to being a ‘focus’ of attention at Ford

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CONCORD, N.C. — Hailie Deegan‘s future with Ford started in style.

The 18-year-old began the next chapter of her career Tuesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center by slowly piloting a blue Ford Shelby 350 through a set of dark curtains before taking questions from the media.

That followed a hype video showing Deegan doing donuts in another Ford car.

Hailie Deegan emerges from a Ford Shelby 350 as part of her introduction as a member of Ford’s driver development program. (Photo by Daniel McFadin)

The theatrics on her behalf are one of the reasons why, after a few years with Toyota, she’ll be be spending “a lot of birthdays” as a Ford development driver.

But it mostly came down to there not being enough rides for her in Toyota’s stable to properly propel her up the ladder.

“At the end of the day, Toyota, they introduced me to the NASCAR world … they pushed me into it, they gave me a really good base and that’s something I’m super thankful for,” Deegan said. “But at the end of the day, there’s so many Toyota drivers and there’s not many seats. I think we made the best decision for my career long-term.”

Deegan joins a development program that boasts Chase Briscoe as its founding driver.

“There’s going to be more of a focus,” Deegan said. “That’s something I was super adamant about. I want to be focused on, I want to have the attention over here to be a better driver and get developed and that’s something that stood out to me and I think that’s going to help my career.”

Ford recently entered a partnership with the David Gilliland co-owned DGR-Crosley that will add to its efforts.

A three-time winner on what’s now the ARCA Menards Series West, Deegan will compete full-time with DGR-Crosley in the ARCA Menards Series while also competing in select IMSA races, beginning with the Jan. 24 Michelin Pilot Challenge endurance race at Daytona International Speedway.

The looming ARCA season won’t be Deegan’s first interaction with DGR-Crosley. She competed in one ARCA Menards Series East race with the team this year at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I got used to the team, I got to feel everyone out, see what I liked, didn’t like and there was a lot of things that I liked about them,” Deegan said. “I saw how hard their work ethic was. I really like how David, he was a racer. He understands it. He has a son (Todd Gilliland) that races, he knows the game of trying to build your kid into the ranks of NASCAR and running a team at the same time while still being a racer. That’s something I think is a really good combo that’s just going to help his team get better and better. Especially with how much Ford is supporting them, getting behind them.

“The resources they’re giving them is insane.”

Among those resources now at her disposal is Ford’s “marketing push.”

“That’s something I didn’t really have in the past with the team I was with and the manufacturer, that’s something (Ford wants) to push more,” Deegan said. “Push more stuff that’s away from racing, that’s ‘OK, let’s gets you in a Mustang, lets get you in a truck and let’s do some cool videos and stuff like that’ and that’s something I’m big into. I love social media. I love doing stuff like that and that’s definitely a push they want to connect us with.”

All this is work towards one goal: reaching the NASCAR Cup Series.

Both Deegan and Ford Performance Motorsports’ global director, Mark Rushbrook, preached the importance of Deegan moving up each step on the stock car racing ladder when she’s ready.

“We want to make sure, and Hailie wants to make sure, her team wants to make sure, she progresses to those levels when she’s ready to ensure success at each step,” Rushbrook said.

While Ford didn’t announce an expected plan for her progression, Deegan’s father, action sports star Brian Deegan, hopes the opportunity arises for her to “dabble” in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series at some point this year.

“I think she needs that,” Brian Deegan said. “She wants to race Eldora for sure, just because it’s a dirt race.”

He even mapped out the ideal structure for his daughter over the next few years.

“It would be ARCA (in 2020), 2021 trucks, 2022 trucks, 23′, 24′ (in) Xfinity is kind of what we’re hoping and laying out, is kind of our goal for her to have that path and then get to Cup,” Brian Deegan said. “By then I think she should have enough experience on everything to be ready, to be competitive.”

Hailie Deegan admitted it’s been difficult to see her fellow competitors from the ARCA East and West Series get a shot at the Truck Series before she does.

“It’s been really hard, just going to ISM (Raceway) at Phoenix (in November,)” she said. “It was so hard for me because my teammate (Derek Kraus at Bill McAnally Racing), he was racing in the truck race and I was sitting there on pit road and I was like, ‘Man, if he can do it, I want to do it.’ Seeing all my friends reach trucks, that’s something hard for me to kind of hold back on, ‘Ok let’s race ARCA, let’s gain experience, let’s get better before I go there.'”

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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.