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Roger Penske likes direction NASCAR, his organization are going

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The Captain likes what he sees in the waters ahead of him.

Roger Penske made a special guest appearance Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Trading Paint” and is bullish on what’s ahead for NASCAR as the series begins to implement a number of changes over the next few years.

Those include the change from one series entitlement sponsor as in past seasons in favor of four premier partners this season, as well as a revised schedule (with the potential of more schedule alterations in 2021 and beyond).

There’s also the highly anticipated Next Gen car slated for 2021, a push to attract additional car manufacturers and an industry-wide focus on cost cutting.

“One of the main things NASCAR is trying to do is take costs out,” Penske told co-hosts John Roberts and Chocolate Myers. “People say speed costs money, how fast do you want to go? But I think we’re at a limit where we have to go the other way.

“To me, the cost is key. The schedule is going to be different, I understand, but its also going to give other teams the ability to raise sponsorships and if the costs are cut by 30 or 40 percent, it’s going to allow new people to join the sport, which I feel is very, very important as we go forward.

“We need new owners, more new drivers that want to come in with maybe a new team, some of the new things they’ve announced on pit stops, and there’s a lot of discussions going on with NASCAR.”

Another area that Penske, who turns 83 next month, is also very bullish is even closer to home: the shakeup of shifting all three NASCAR Cup crew chiefs in his organization earlier this week:

“You have to look at the talent you have both on and off the track and people have been together a number of years,” Penske told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s like any person in any job, people like a change and it motivates them.

“We felt we had three great guys and great drivers and we said, ‘Let’s change it up this year and let’s see what happens.’ This isn’t because anybody asked for it or not. … We sat down and said what can we do differently than to have a bigger spoiler or engine that can motivate our guys going forward. It was pretty much made before Christmas … and the guys are off and running.

“I think it’s good. You see people moving crew chiefs and drivers moving around, but this is part of our business plan and part of the way we run our business.”

To further illustrate Team Penske’s one-for-all and all-for-one mantra, the organization’s patriarch said there were no objections among the three crew chiefs that were shifted, nor their drivers.

“I don’t know who spun out or didn’t because they wouldn’t tell me, but everybody reported to work so that’s the only true test I can have,” Penske said with a laugh, before drawing serious again. “Everybody was on it and wanted to go forward.

“So let’s see what the result is. It’s going to be interesting. When you start working with someone new, there’s new ideas and it’s not the same old, same old. This business is moving so fast, we have to be better as a whole team, not just crew chiefs and drivers.

“We had a good season, it wasn’t a bad season, but it wasn’t a championship season and we’re in the business of winning championships. … Sometimes it makes sense to give someone another opportunity in another job and that’s what we did.”

Penske also addressed the acquisition of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series; the sale from Hulman & Co. officially closed this past Monday.

“I looked at it as an opportunity,” Penske said. “And to me, if the legacy can go down that we can take this track, none of us can say whether we did a better job than they did after 74 years.

“I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.

“That’s what we want to do. We have a number of things on our mind and we’re going to announce a lot of those things on 100 days out. We’ll have some announcements that will be exciting and hopefully the experience will be what we expect to provide to the guests that come to the track.”

The voice of the normally stoic Penske cracked slightly when asked what he thought when the sale was complete and the pride of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis was his after 74 years of ownership by the Hulman-George family.

“I did one thing,” he said, as his voice slightly quivered. “I looked up in the sky and said to my dad, ‘thanks’ because he took me there (for the first time) when I was 14 years old.”

Penske then continued about the significance of the track where his teams have captured a record 18 Indianapolis 500s.

“I’ve been there every year since that day in ’51,” Penske said. “It’s amazing what it brings to us. It’s an amazing place and certainly from our family, my son Greg who was very important in building California Speedway.

“I was fortunate here on the (January) 7th after we completed the transaction to be invited by the governor to go downtown and go to the (Indiana state) Senate along with Tony (George), Mark Miles, my son Greg and I and have the Senate read and approve a declaration of the day and many of the senators got up and spoke about the history of the Speedway and their families, and then we did the same thing at the (Indiana state) House. It was just amazing.

“Understand that this is the Holy Grail of the state of Indiana. They told stories about being in the state of Alaska in 1981 when Bobby Unser won the race and then they took it away because they looked at TV and said he passed when he blended — and they were arguing about it in Alaska.

“You just think about the reach of this place. Our responsibility is it’s a treasure, it’s iconic and something from my perspective, it’s just exactly what built our brand. … Certainly winning there 18 years, finally winning the Brickyard, winning on the road course, you can’t just say it happens. It takes so many great people that have given us the opportunities to be winners, so I just have to thank them. And I thank my dad … and here we are.”

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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.