Where Are They Now? Catching up with ‘Fatback’ McSwain

McSwain talks to Ricky Rudd at Richmond in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.
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Michael “Fatback” McSwain has spent his life as a man of principle.

That was true during his 16-season tenure in NASCAR, most notably as a Cup crew chief for several drivers, including Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte, Hall nominee Ricky Rudd, and teams like Wood Brothers Racing, Robert Yates Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

McSwain was a mechanical wizard who also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if it sometimes meant conflicts with NASCAR and his own drivers.

Nothing showed McSwain’s principles more than when he just one day up and walked away from NASCAR. There was no victory lap, no goodbye tour, nothing. He was just there one day, gone the next.

By choice.

As important as NASCAR was in his life, his family was more important.

“One day, (former crew chief) Jimmy Fennig came up to me at New Hampshire (Motor Speedway),” McSwain told NBC Sports. “We had had our first child, a daughter, and my wife was pregnant with our second child. Jimmy told me, ‘The sport has been good to both of us, but I want to give you some advice. My kids are graduating high school and I don’t even know any of their friend’s names.’ That sunk in with me.

“Then, my daughter had got to where she had just started talking and didn’t want me to go (on the road again). The sport has been good to all of us, but I realized that there’s no way I could do both the way I thought I needed to do it. That time, if you were a crew chief, it was a 24/7 job. I chose to walk away.”

He even states it on his Twitter page: “I left racing to be with my wife and kids.”

Given that he’s worked on cars all his life, McSwain decided to open an auto repair business post-NASCAR, named appropriately enough, Fatback’s Tire and Auto Repair in August 2008 in Dallas, North Carolina.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” McSwain said. “I had never been in a retail business. You have to treat people with kid gloves. Back then, you had to treat a driver, an owner and sponsors that way. Now you have to treat everybody that walks into those doors with kid gloves.”

McSwain admits he misses NASCAR “big time. I miss the people and the lifestyle, I enjoyed it. I worked my whole life to get there, but I was missing my kids more, so I felt I had to choose. I’m an all-in kind of guy so I didn’t think I had a choice, I had to choose one or the other.”

McSwain’s children are now 15, 13 and 10. As they grow, he admits he may entertain coming back to the sport at some point.

“I’m still pretty young, I’m only 53 years old,” he said. “So I’ve got time for one more shot.”

But he acknowledges that if he were to return, it would be a challenge.

“It’d be like starting over because everything has changed so much,” he said. “But maybe sometime in the next couple years, it’d be a good time (to return) because they’re changing cars again.

“My kids are old enough now where there’s still some things I don’t want to miss, but I don’t know if I would say no (to returning to NASCAR). It’d have to be the right situation, but it would be a challenge. I started out when I was young, worked my guts out to get there and then I walked away from it.”

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While selling and fixing tires and auto repairs make up the majority of his business these days, McSwain has gone back to racing somewhat, just not as a crew chief.

“There are several dirt tracks around here,” he said. “We have a trailer we take to the race tracks to service the tracks and teams on Saturday nights, supply tires and fuel and parts. It started out as a little fun thing to now where it’s turned into a big part of our business.”

Never one to be afraid to voice his opinion, McSwain says he’s considered writing a book about his NASCAR career, one that included 330 races as a Cup Series crew chief, with five wins, 59 top-five and 102 top-10 finishes and nine poles.

He has plenty of highlights he’d likely include. Right at the top would be his first career win as a crew chief for Robert Yates Racing in 2001 when Rudd took the checkered flag on June 17 at Pocono Raceway in the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford.

“We had won every practice, sat on the pole and won the race,” McSwain recalled. “We weren’t even supposed to be there and yet we did.

“The car was thrown out back at the 88 shop (teammate Dale Jarrett’s team) for scrap, I swear to God. But it had a certain characteristic that we liked about a chassis and the way it was built.

“It matched one of our other favorite cars, so we asked Robert (Yates) if we could have it and he said, ‘Yeah, they don’t want it anymore.’ We took it back to the shop, made a few changes to it and it won at Pocono and sat on the pole at Indy (the previous year). It was our money maker.”

Rudd would go on to win two races in 2001 and finish fourth in the standings.

“That was a storybook year for us,” McSwain said. “We ran good and kicked butt everywhere we went, but we weren’t supposed to.”

Another of McSwain’s favorite memories was when Morgan Shepherd finished third at Atlanta in 1997 with minimal sponsorship.

“I was the only guy who knew how to set up a car and who knew how to build shocks,” McSwain said with a chuckle.

Then there’s Martinsville Speedway, which was the biggest thorn in McSwain’s side during his career. He visited the .526-mile paperclip oval 19 times as a crew chief, with the best showings being two runner-up finishes with Labonte and another with Rudd.

“Martinsville was my curse, the race I never won,” he said. “I worked on or was crew chief on cars good enough to win there I can’t tell you how many times with Ricky and Bobby. We finished in the top five. I absolutely loved it but never won there.”

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McSwain’s first job in the sport was as a mechanic for Lake Speed in 1992. He left NASCAR after the 2007 season.

He’s attended four races since, the Daytona 500 from 2008-10 and one race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But McSwain hasn’t lost his opinion about the sport.

“NASCAR is a great sport but I hate to see it where it is,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be where it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Michael ‘Fatback’ McSwain in 2002 at Michigan International Speedway. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Although he doesn’t go to races any longer, McSwain still keeps up with the sport, usually through watching on TV.

He also remains in regular contact with several NASCAR notables including Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Mike Helton and the Wood Brothers:  “I love the Wood Brothers like family,” he said.

Even though he’s been gone from the sport for more than a decade, NASCAR fans have not forgotten McSwain. He still gets letters and emails, along with fans who regularly stop by his garage to take a photo with and get an autograph from him.

“It’s cool, man,” he said with emphasis. “A couple weeks ago I got a message from a guy in Wisconsin that included a trading card he wanted me to sign. I always try to send them back a note and tell them I appreciate it and hope God blesses them. It’s just humbling, man.

“One of the best parts of my job in NASCAR was signing autographs, hanging out and talking with the fans. I’d think about it and why would they want my autograph? I’m just a redneck from Latimore, North Carolina. I grew up in just a little farm town on 15 acres. I lived to race. I did it because I loved it. I’m just lucky, man.”

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).