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A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.

But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.

Deegan’s achievements are not measured against foes but history. She was the first woman to win an ARCA West race in 2018. Her runner-up finish in last weekend’s ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Evernham for the best result by a woman in that series.

Brian Deegan with daughter Hailie before last weekend’s ARCA race at Daytona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.

“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.

“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”

Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.

Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.

“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”

FADING HOPES

When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’

“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”

Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.

“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.

Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.

“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”

Kenzie Hemric, shown in 2015, was the first female selected to the NASCAR Next program in 2013. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.

Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.

Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.

“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”

Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.

Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.

She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.

One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”

So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?

McKenna Haase participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine in 2016 and ’17 but was not selected for the program either year. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.

“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”

She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”

Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.

“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”

While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”

Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.

The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.

“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”

“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”

The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.

A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”

Jennifer Jo Cobb has run more national series NASCAR races than any other woman except Danica Patrick. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”

Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.

She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.

Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.

“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old … and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.

“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”

Cobb recalls that her father won that night.

“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”

Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career,  if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.

“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”

EXTRA MOTIVATION

At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.

She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.

But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.

Hailie Deegan (No. 4) trails Michael Self on the last lap of the ARCA season opener last week at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.

“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”

Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”

Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”

Especially young girls.

“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”

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Michigan Truck race results

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Zane Smith scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win, securing a playoff spot with a last-lap pass in double overtime Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Tanner Gray, Tyler Ankrum and Todd Gilliland.

Click here for race results

Todd Gilliland stretched his lead to 29 points over Tyler Ankrum for the final playoff spot after Friday’s race. Gilliland gained seven points on Ankrum. Gilliland in 10th in the standings. He’s one point behind Derek Kraus. Austin Hill continues to lead the points.

Click here for driver points  

Zane Smith uses overtime charge to score first Truck win

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Zane Smith passed Christian Eckes on the last lap of double overtime to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Eckes finished second. Tanner Gray placed third.

Smith is 21 years old, Eckes is 19 and Gray is 21.

MORE: Race results

“I wish I was here to celebrate with my parents and my girlfriend,” an emotional Smith told FS1 after the race.

Grant Enfinger led on the restart but came down from the top lane and came down on Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek and spun. That allowed Eckes to take the lead and put Smith third. Smith passed Gray for second in Turn 4 coming to the white flag.

Smith dived under Eckes in Turn 2 on the final lap and pulled away to win.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Zane Smith was eighth with three laps to go and went on to win and secure a playoff spot. … Christian Eckes finished second for the third consecutive race. … Tanner Gray finished a career-high third.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Johnny Sauter spun and hit the wall while racing teammate Grant Enfinger for the lead with 16 laps to go. Sauter entered the race 63 points out of the final playoff spot after a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the race. … Stewart Friesen was eliminated in a crash on Lap 50  after contact with Christian Eckes. Friesen finished last in the 39-truck field. … Chandler Smith was eliminated in a crash on Lap 60 after contact with Ben Rhodes. Smith finished 38th.

NOTABLE: The combined age of the top three finishers (61) was just short of the series record for the youngest three finishers. That record of 55 was set in  June 2016 at Iowa when William Byron (then 18), Cole Custer (then 18) and Cameron Hayley (then 19) went 1-2-3.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race on the Daytona road course, Sunday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET on FS1.

Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

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A week after he begged his father to let him race a go-kart, the 9-year-old finished last and in tears. He complained that the loaned go-kart was not fast enough.

Jerry Brown saw a passion he had not seen from his son when Brandon played soccer, baseball or did any other activity. Jerry didn’t know much about racing but he bought a go-kart, beginning a father-son journey that took them to races across the country and all the way to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“It’s been my dad and I every single weekend since the age of nine,” Brandon Brown told NBC Sports.

It was that way until this year.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America: Start time, forecast, TV channel

Jerry attended this season’s first four Xfinity races before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sport. Father and son were together in an Atlanta hotel in March when NASCAR announced it would not race there that weekend.

While much of the world stopped, Jerry’s life changed.

A simple procedure in April led to a cancer diagnosis. His routine now includes “aggressive” cancer treatments. Jerry, 60, isolates to avoid the coronavirus. If he were to be infected, his treatments would have to stop until he recovered from the virus.

Brandon, 27, admits his father’s condition was a key point in moving from Virginia, where the family resides, to the Mooresville, North Carolina area and being closer to the sport’s hub. Traveling each week to races, Brandon didn’t want to take the chance he could catch COVID-19 and infect his father. So it was better to be apart, something they’ve rarely been.

“It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster,” said Brandon, who talks with his father daily. “I haven’t really opened up to anyone … it’s a feeling of fear constantly just because I keep seeing posts about people that have passed away from (the coronavirus), people without health issues that are getting it and things are going bad.”

“Joy and the hugs”

Jerry Brown looks back to all those days driving to races with Brandon and the trips that also included wife Valorie and son William. Jerry says buying that first go-kart and getting into racing was the “best decision we ever made” because of the time spent with family.

Valorie Brown with son Brandon, husband Jerry and son William. (Photo: Brandon Brown)

“You actually get to be with your kids as they are growing up and doing what they love to do,” he told NBC Sports.

“The gleam that you get to see on their faces when they’re 10-11 years old and going out and competing against 20 karts and winning and the joy and the hugs you get to give right there, you just can’t beat that.”

It’s not just the good times that are memorable.

“You also got to be with them in the heartaches, when things didn’t go right,” Jerry said. “The first national race (Brandon) won, a plug in the carburetor had fallen out, so at post-tech we got disqualified. … It’s not the best memory, but it’s one of those things that when you’re a father, you want to be there for your sons for the good and the bad.”

As Brandon climbed from Late Models to the NASCAR Truck Series and then Xfinity Series, Jerry was there. The journey hasn’t been easy for Brandon, who last won a race in 2012 in Late Models. He went to college, graduating in 2018 from Coastal Carolina. He ran a partial schedule while in school with the family team, Brandonbilt Motorsports.

“When you’re here racing this type of competition, you’re not going to win when you are a part-timer,” Jerry said. “He understood that.”

Brandon ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year. Competing against organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, is formidable for any team, let alone a family team with eight full-time employees.

Brown finished 15th in the points last year. He holds the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America (noon ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App).

“I’m not going to give up,” Brandon said. “That was something my dad has preached to me, among other things, thousands and thousands of times over. When you get a goal, you put your mind to it and get it done. Do the important things first and goof off later. I heard that a lot growing up.

“His push, his drive, his sacrifice, his determination is kind of in the back of my mind pushing me the entire time. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to fail.”

Brandon Brown’s best finish in the Xfinity Series is sixth at Daytona in 2019. His best finish this year is seventh at Daytona and Bristol. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Shocking phone call

Jerry went to the doctor’s office April 7 to have a swollen lymph node checked.

The node had to be removed and tested. After the procedure, the doctor told Jerry that he didn’t think the lymph node was cancerous.

Tests confirmed it was.

“Getting that call was devastating,” Jerry said.

Then came a series of tests to find the source before treatment could be set. Doctors determined that Jerry needed proton treatment, which is a new type of radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

He has had treatments every weekday since July 13. When he talked to NBC Sports on Thursday, he had completed treatment 19 earlier in the day. Jerry is scheduled to have 33 treatments, the last one set for Aug. 26.

“The chemo knocks you out really bad,” he said.

A special celebration

As his father goes through treatment, Brown goes to the track, seeking to make the Xfinity playoffs for the first time.

He goes to Road America 32 points ahead of Jeremy Clements but Clements scored his lone Xfinity win at this track in 2017. Nine races remain before the playoffs, including one race on the Daytona oval, two races on road courses and three on short tracks. There are many obstacles between Brown and a playoff spot. 

Brandon Brown holds the final Xfinity Series playoff spot heading into Saturday’s race at Road America. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Jeremy is an excellent road course racer and also he’s run very, very strong at the short tracks. Just as he is going to have to give 110%, we’re going to have to give 111% just to keep that points buffer.”

Brown has built that margin on Clements and those behind him with consistent finishes. Brown has placed between 10th and 13th in five of the last seven races.

“Our goal is to show up, run all the laps, stay clean, finish the race,” he said. “With that mindset, we push to be right there in the 10th, 11th, 12th mark. We want to be be there to capitalize on if top-tier programs have incidents or wreck out or whatever, we have the ability to take advantage of the situation.”

Brown’s best Xfinity finish is sixth in 70 starts. He’s scored four of his five career top-10 finishes this season. The closer he gets to the front, the closer he gets to his first NASCAR win. 

“I’ve said if we win a race and dad is not there, I think it would be a bittersweet moment,” he said. “It would feel so good to finally win again and also prove to myself that I’m supposed to be here. It does get a little defeating when you’re best is some of those guys’ OK races. It can get a little defeating, but it would feel so good to climb that hurdle.”

And if he wins soon, he admits the “trophy would not leave my sight … I will throw it in the front seat of my truck and I will drive my butt to Virginia and I will do donuts in the cul-de-sac and celebrate with dad there.”

Jerry can’t wait.

“That would be awesome.”

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Saturday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series is set to hold its second doubleheader weekend of the year as it journies to Michigan International Speedway.

A few weeks after holding back-to-back races at Pocono, the series does so on the 2-mile speedway.

Saturday sees the first race of the doubleheader, with Joey Logano starting from the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: WWE Superstar The Big Show will give the command to start engines at 4:08 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 9 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by 12-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans at 4:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, NASCAR will run the entire field down pit road during one of the pace laps for pit road speed verification. If a car stops anywhere on pit road for any reason, the car will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 3:30 p.m. and the race broadcast. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski triumphed over Denny Hamlin to win at New Hampshire.

LAST RACE AT MICHIGAN: Kevin Harvick beat Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

STARTING LINEUP: Cup starting lineup Saturday at Michigan

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Joey Logano draws the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Up to 8,000 fans approved to attend Southern 500

Silly Season Scorecard: Erik Jones splits with Joe Gibbs Racing

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis tests positive for COVID-19

NASCAR announces remaining 2020 schedule

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

Chip Ganassi Racing makes crew chief change

Leavine Family Racing announces it has been sold

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Brad Keselowski signs contract extension with Team Penske