Friday 5: How a career-best finish was heartbreaking for Josh Williams

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Josh Williams tightened his belts and prepared for chaos.

Restarting 11th with four laps to go in last weekend’s Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway, Williams saw his chance for a top-10 finish, something he had done only five times in 90 previous starts.

He had fresh tires and hope. There are no more powerful allies in racing. Especially for one who calls himself an old-school racer for how he worked his way up to driving for a small-budget Xfinity team. 

“Late in the race like that, when everybody is really trying to get after it, it is kind of like roulette,” Williams told NBC Sports. “You really never know what number it is going to land on.”

As the field entered Turn 1 on the restart, a lane opened on the bottom. Williams charged. The DGM Racing driver climbed to eighth by the backstretch. He gained two more spots to finish a career-high sixth.

After the checkered flag, he returned to pit road. Williams unbuckled his belts. He removed his helmet. Williams paused as he climbed from his car. He sat on the driver’s side window. And bowed his head.

He was not celebrating.

He was mourning.

Josh Williams reflects on his career-high sixth-place finish at Kansas and mourns the loss of a friend. (Photo: Parker Kligerman)

Josh Williams, 27, starts conversations with “hey brother.” So maybe it isn’t surprising that he once hired a person he met at a gas station.

Williams had come across the guy a couple of times at the track but didn’t know his name. He had also seen him at the gas station near Williams’ shop before. On this particular day a few years ago, Williams was preparing to go to Daytona for an ARCA race and needed some help. When he saw the familiar fellow at the gas station, Williams struck up a conversation. He asked the guy if he wanted to help him at the track. Williams got a quick “yes.” Williams said they would leave from the shop, got his phone number and told Tim Hayes: “Let’s go racing.”

Hayes worked on and off for Williams for a spell before he joined Josh Williams Motorsports full-time. Williams’ operation takes care of racing vehicles from Bandolero cars and Legends Cars to Late Models for others.

“We try to get these kids to where I was,” Williams said of his development program.

Hayes helped Williams’ Xfinity crew at times, but Hayes’ focus was working on the cars at Williams’ shop and helping the young drivers who piloted them.

Hayes was easy to get along with, Williams said. The bond between Williams and Hayes grew quickly.

“I don’t think I ever went a day in the shop without laughing my ass off about something (Hayes) had to say,” Williams said. “He was one the funniest dudes I’ve ever been around.”

Hayes’ life wasn’t always full of laughter, though.

“I know he was battling depression for a long time,” Williams said. “When I met him, he was in a pretty rough place. He told me probably about nine months ago, he said, ‘Man, if I hadn’t met you and your wife I don’t know if I would be here today.’ ”

Hayes died at his home last Friday, a day before the Kansas Xfinity race. He was 25.

As Williams buried his head before climbing from his car after last weekend’s race, he faced conflicting emotions.

“Every time we’ve had a good run, we’d get back to the shop on Monday, he would talk about it,” Williams said of Hayes. “I was mad because he wasn’t going to be at the shop on Monday telling me how good we did.”

Josh Williams has six top-10 finishes in 91 Xfinity starts. (Photo by Kyle Ocker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That Williams races in the Xfinity Series is a testament to his dedication and a love of speed that developed at an early age.

When he was 2 years old, Williams’ father, who was a racer, would put Dawn dish soap and speedy dri on the pavement and put up cones for Williams to maneuver his Big Wheel around.

“He taught me car control,” Williams said.

His father also put him in a go-kart at an early age.

“It was probably faster than it should have been,” Williams said. “My mom wasn’t too excited about it.”

Williams was hooked on racing and moved from his family’s home in Port Charlotte, Florida, to North Carolina at age 15 to pursue his racing dream. He finished high school online.

“I’ve slept on people’s couches, I’ve slept on floors, I’ve traveled around with other people and worked on my own equipment and helped build race cars,” he said.

Williams learned how to build cars from Barry Owen, who worked on Richard Childress’ car when Childress drove and also worked for Richard Petty.

“(Owen) was old school,” Williams said. “We built a whole race car from a used parts store. We didn’t go buy anything new. He taught me how to do it and save money. That’s the reason I’ve been able to do this for so long.”

Williams’ career has been filled with limited budgets, long hours and even longer drives. In 2016, he was racing for his family’s ARCA team. They had problems with an engine and didn’t have another one. They decided to skip the next event.

But racers don’t quit. Encouraged by his wife, Williams called his team members late that night and they worked on the car into the next day. They never fixed the engine but figured they’d see how long it would last. After working through the night, they drove from North Carolina to Wisconsin for the race.

The motor lasted all 200 laps at Madison International Speedway. Williams won the race.

“It’s times like that, you’re like, well, we can do it,” Williams said.

That determination eventually led to a phone call from Mario Gosselin to start and park a car in the Xfinity Series in 2016.

“He just kept calling me,” Williams said. “It turned into we were running races. Then, we were finding some sponsor money to run some more races. Now, he can’t get rid of me.”

Williams has run the full Xfinity season for Gosselin’s team since last year. Williams’ sixth-place at Kansas marked his second top 10 in the last three races.

“Mario really gave me an opportunity that I don’t think anybody else would have,” Williams said. “There’s races where I haven’t had a dime and he’s taken a chance on tearing up his equipment … to put me in a race car.”

It was inside that car last weekend where Williams felt so many emotions after the checkered flag waved. His thoughts returned to Tim Hayes.

“You experience the lowest of lows the night before and the highest of highs the next day,” Williams said. “You’re happy and sad all at the same time.”

2. On a roll

Kevin Harvick goes into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) having won the past three playoff races there.

He also has scored a top-10 finish in 12 consecutive races at the track, a streak dating back to Nov. 2014.

But Harvick has seen his greatest success there since 2017 when the track was repaved and the banking in Turns 1 and 2 decreased 4 degrees to 20 degrees.

Since the changes, Harvick has finished no worse than eighth at Texas. He’s won three races in that time and finished second another time.

I’d really like to thank Eddie Gossage for redesigning the racetrack because for whatever reason since Eddie has redesigned the track, things have kind of fallen into being favorable for us,” Harvick said, referring to the track’s president and general manager. “The things that we do with our race car and myself as a driver it just kind of fits everything, so it’s just finally the last few years we’ve been able to capitalize on what we had on the old racetrack as well and that was fast cars. 

“I think as you look at really everything that’s happened at Texas it’s just been A-plus, and when you have that confidence in a racetrack and the guys have confidence in the setup and the car and the things that they change from year to year it’s hard to beat confidence. There’s always things that can happen, but I truly believe that we’ll go there and have a really fast car and be comfortable the week leading up to it that you made the right decisions because we’ve made a lot of really good decisions there in the past. It’s just been a great place for us.”

Harvick enters this weekend 41 points ahead of the cutoff for the final transfer spot. Even if he doesn’t win, he could clinch a spot in the championship race based on points with a strong enough run Sunday.

3. No need to go?

Sunday’s Cup race at Texas is seemingly meaningless for Joey Logano and his team.

He’s already clinched a spot in the championship race with his Kansas win. The title race is at Phoenix, a track unlike Texas. While a driver and team have to run every race to be eligible for the crown, there’s nothing that says the crew chief has to be there.

Still, Paul Wolfe will be at Texas.

Why?

“The biggest thing to me is keeping our team and our momentum, our flow, things like that going,” Wolfe said after the Kansas win. “While I may be spending a lot more of my time during the week working through some of my Phoenix stuff … I still think it’s important for all of us to go and race every week just like we’re going to race at Phoenix in three weeks.

“If I’m not there, someone is not there, something is different. We want to keep in sync. I feel like our team’s made strides as we’ve got into the playoffs this year, building momentum, having strong races. … We want to kind of keep that flow and rhythm going, but we’ll also be focusing a lot more on Phoenix.”

Two of the last four years the driver who won the opening race in the third round — and gave his team two weeks to focus its preparation on the championship race — won the title. Logano did it in 2018 when he had Todd Gordon as his crew chief.

“I definitely think it’s somewhat of an advantage to us,” Wolfe said of having the extra time to focus on Phoenix. “Whether we want to look at stats of who won the first race winning the championship, that’s great. I look at it as we feel like Team Penske’s short track program is strong. We were obviously able to win Phoenix earlier this year.  Just knowing that, that we are advanced now, yeah, definitely gives you a little extra time.”

4. Finishing strong

Daniel Suarez admits that it has been “difficult to go to the racetrack knowing that your car will not be as good as some of the others” this season.

Suarez heads into Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway 31st in the points. He joined Gaunt Brothers Racing until late January. This is the team’s first full season after running no more than a partial schedule since debuting in 2017.

Suarez’s best finishes this year have been 18th at Bristol and Kansas in the regular season.

“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Suarez said. “I truly believe that. I’m much better mentally and physically than I was in the middle of the year. I feel like I can’t really wait till the start of 2021.”

He’ll join Justin Marks’ new team, Trackhouse Racing, for next season. The team will have a charter and be aligned with Richard Childress Racing.

Suarez said even as he looks to next year, he’s not ignoring the final three races of this season.

“Last week, I noticed a few people on the team looking down, but I told them I’m not done yet,” Suarez said. “I know I’m not going to be here next year, but I’m still here (now). So, if you guys want to be in a good position for next year, you better put yourself together and get to work. In my opinion, you are as good as your last race. If we do good job in Phoenix, who knows, maybe that can help everyone for next year.”

5. A baker’s dozen

Chase Briscoe’s promotion to Cup next season means that 13 of the 36 teams with charters will have drivers who came through organizations owned by Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Briscoe became the latest to earn a Cup ride, taking over the No. 14 at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021.

Briscoe will be one of four alums from Brad Keselowski Racing’s defunct Truck program racing in Cup next year. Briscoe’s lone win with the team came in BKR’s last race in the 2017 season finale at Miami.

Others who ran at least half a season with Brad Keselowski Racing and will be in Cup next year are Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain. Austin Cindric also competed for BKR and will drive in select Cup races next year before moving to the Cup Series full-time in 2022 with Wood Brothers Racing.

I’m glad to see other drivers get an opportunity like I got to be at the top level and to have someone support them,” Keselowski said. “I had multiple people that helped me in my career, whether that was at the Late Model level, the Truck level, the Xfinity level. Without any of those people I couldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Truck program will have five alums in Cup next year, just as it did this year. Cup drivers who ran at least half a season with the team are Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace.

JR Motorsports will have six drivers who went though its program in Cup, same as this year. The drivers who competed in the Xfinity Series were Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Reddick, Byron and Keselowski. JR Motorsports fielded a Truck team in 2016 for Cole Custer, who will be this year’s Cup Rookie of the Year.

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